by Catherine Myers
When our children were young, it was easy enough to get them out of the house for an excursion. We collected everything they would need, dressed them appropriately, and whisked them off. As they got older, though, things got more complicated. “I’m busy,” one would say. “You didn’t tell me ahead of time,” another would claim. My husband Fred and I began to wonder: How much notice does an eight-year-old need for a two-hour outing? How are we supposed to pick a time that doesn’t conflict with anyone’s desire to be doing something else?
We tried being more flexible. Planning a hike around one child’s desire to finish a Lego-building project, and the other’s request to be back in time to play with a friend proved virtually impossible.
Fred and I talked about family outings, trying to figure out why we were having so much trouble with them. We realized that the children often protested and insisted that they didn’t want to go, then had a good time anyway. It seemed as though they forgot how much fun they had had in the past when they were faced with the request to “get ready” and the need to conclude their current activity. When we were going on hikes regularly — at least every other weekend — our children offered the least resistance.
Some of our own anxiety about who would plan the outings, and how to get the children ready, was relieved by our discussions. We had both been frustrated by the whining and protests of the children, and had been getting angry at them, and often, in turn, at each other. We talked about how our son could organize himself to get to a ball game (remembering uniform parts, special shoes, equipment, and water), and yet would dissolve into tears trying to remember where his shoes were for a family expedition. What was going on? We decided that the problem was one of human nature, rather than a personality defect. We would accept the reluctance and simply give the children more help. We agreed that getting everyone out the door was always going to be hard work. If we could stay calm, plan extra time, and give the children a hand, we would all be in a better mood when we finally did get going.
We agreed that if we were ever to get this family out of the house together, we just had to insist on it. We learned not to ask “would you like to...”, because then it sounded like they were getting a choice. We learned simply to announce a family outing, with what we thought was reasonable notice.
Our biggest challenges came when we were visiting Grandma and Grandpa for a few days. The children never wanted to leave the house, and during winter their grandparents didn’t go out much. During one winter visit, when Scott was ten and Michelle eight, we knew it would be better for everyone if we got them outside for some fresh air and exercise.
“Scott, Michelle, please stop reading and get dressed — remember the Great Swamp we told you about? It’s time for us to go for a walk, and see what’s there,” said Fred, in his best “let’s go on an adventure” voice.
“Oh no, I don’t want to walk!” exclaimed Scott, “My knees hurt.”
“I want to stay here with Grandma and Grandpa,” declared Michelle.
Grandma called from the kitchen, “I have to take my shower and fix my hair anyway, Michelle. I’ll be ready to play when you get back.”
“Come on guys,” I said, briskly. “Let’s go see what the swamp is like. Get dressed warmly and put your shoes and socks on — our boots are in the car.”
“Do I have to?” asked Scott.
“YES!” said Fred and I simultaneously.
The children groaned about getting ready, and argued with us about appropriate clothes. I remember thinking that I would never have been able to endure this alone while keeping my temper — but with a quick glance at Fred I felt we were partners in this ordeal. Finally, we were out the door.
Twenty minutes later, at the end of a winding road, we came to an entrance to the park, and a small sign.
“This must not be the main entrance, the one with a boardwalk,” I said with concern.
“Let’s try it, I need to get out,” said Fred impatiently, as he opened the car door.
“I’m hungry,” proclaimed Michelle from the back seat. “Did you bring anything to eat?”
“Yes, I have crackers and cheese —you can eat some after you put your boots on and start walking,” I answered.
“I’m really cold,” whined Michelle. “Why do we have to do this?”
“Let me zip up your jacket,” I said, trying to mask my annoyance at the continuing complaints.
“No, it’s my legs that are cold, and that won’t help,” stated Michelle stubbornly. “I want to go home.”
I knew better than to press the point about the jacket, but I wondered once again whether we really knew what we were doing, out in the woods on a gray, windy day with these miserable children.
“Let’s go,” declared Fred, as he headed quickly into the woods.
“Let me have a cracker,” said Michelle.
“Take a handful, and walk,” I said grimly. “Catch up to Daddy.”
The path went through some thinly wooded land, and a side path led to a clearing, where we stopped to look around.
“Can I zip up your jacket now, Michelle?” I asked, as the wind picked up.
“Okay,” said Michelle reluctantly.
“There are some ducks! — shhh!” whispered Fred.
Now everyone was eager to take a turn using our new binoculars. A few of the ducks flew off, flapping into the sky. A few seconds later, more ducks rose out of the swamp. Then more! Hundreds of ducks beat the air with their wings, and as they flew, they made a soft calling sound. We stood quietly for a few minutes, entranced by their noise and movement, then listening hard in the stillness that followed. All the reluctance and opposition seemed to wash away, as the children led the way back to the main trail.
Up ahead, the trail was covered with several inches of water. This was the kind of challenge Scott loved, and he led the way through the underbrush. His attention was caught by cattails ready to release their fuzzy seeds, and he shook the stalks, disbursing the seeds into the wind. We went across a stream on a wooden bridge, then the trail dipped lower again and we came to a very large wet area. Maybe we’ll have to turn around here, I thought. Scott was already off to the side, exploring.
“I found a way around,” he called triumphantly.
Ducking under branches and balancing on partially submerged logs, we slowly made our way to the other side. The trail was dry there, and the sun came out, streaming through the trees onto the leaf-covered path. Scott and Michelle ran ahead, looking for places to hide, and jumping out to startle us. They slid around on frozen puddles, and protested when we wanted to move along. We hiked for over an hour, then Fred and I decided to turn around and go back.
“No!” they both shouted. “We don’t want to go back.”
“Why can’t we see what’s around the bend up there?” asked Michelle.
“Well, okay, just a little further,” said Fred.
Finally, we turned around. On the way back, I walked at a steady pace, while Fred kept track of the children, watching while they stopped again to slide on the frozen puddles, urging them on, and hurrying to keep up when they hit a stretch of dry trail and took off running.
When we returned home, Grandma and Grandpa were resting in their chairs.
“Did you have a good time?” Grandma asked. “You were gone a long time.”
“Yeah, it was all right,” answered Scott. “It was fun to slide on the puddles.”
“Are you ready to play with me, Grandma?” asked Michelle.
Fred and I looked at each other and smiled. The children had probably forgotten all about the struggle to get going. We knew that we might face a battle again the next time we insisted on an outing. Yet, we would remember the way our adventure in the woods helped change everyone’s mood, how delighted the children were by the things they saw, and how energetically they ran and played. We could tell that the exercise and fresh air had been good for all of us. Our memories would include all of this, and would help us get out the door the next time.
© Catherine H. Myers