The plan was to get the kiddos out for a day of climbing. My two daughters (ages 5 and 7) were excited to share this experience with their cousins (ages 7 and 9) who were in town for a visit. We were to go out to the chimneys Such outings require a good bit of preparation. As a parent, I am no longer responsible only for myself and my own comforts in the backcountry, but I am also responsible for my children (and in this case my niece and nephew as well). And this parental responsibility takes on many different and unique challenges with any outing, much less those taking place in the backcountry.
The central dimension from which these varied challenges emerge is that of emotional regulation. The capacity for humans to tolerate discomfort and challenging circumstances is directly linked to our ability to regulate our emotions. This capacity for emotional regulation is developmentally grounded, meaning that infants are less capable of regulating their emotions (and more dependent upon external “parental” soothing actions to regulate their emotions) than 5 year olds, who in turn are less capable of regulating their emotions than teenagers, and so on.
What this means for me as a parent taking kiddos into the backcountry is a recognition of just how fast a backcountry outing can go south. By its nature, backcountry travel involves exposure to many different elements that are beyond one’s control. Vast fluctuations in temperature; the potential for rain, snow, ice, and/or electrical storms; insects and animal life; as well as the challenge and difficulty of terrain all reflect the dynamic and shifting nature of the backcountry environment that is beyond one’s control.
In fact the value and allure of a backcountry outing is precisely that it takes us out of controlled environments (like the climate controlled house) and places us in the environment which is beyond our control. This outing is itself an opportunity for these kiddos to push their limits, to develop the emotional girth to handle difficult circumstances beyond their control, to develop their capacity for emotional regulation. This critical skill of emotional regulation will serve them well in life as it is a transferable skill they will utilize in their future work, relationships, and engagements in the larger community and society. But the value of such an outing depends upon the balancing of these challenges with necessary structure and support.
The goal of such a backcountry outing is to take these kiddos just beyond their comfort zone, but not so far that it puts them in a panic zone. This is what Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development.” With so many uncontrolled variables at play, the parental role of keeping the challenges of backcountry travel within the kiddo’s zone of proximal development can be rather complex. Preparation is key.
In preparing for a backcountry outing, I as a parent have the task of ensuring that we have what is needed… not according to my own ability and comfort, but to that of the youngest child in the group. I not only dress myself for the outing, but make sure each kiddo has dressed and packed their clothing appropriately (including a rain jacket, warm hat, a change of clothes, and appropriate shoes for hiking/climbing). I also must pack food and water for all kiddos embarking on our adventure, recognizing the fact that children need food more regularly than adults, particularly in times of stress. Finally I must also prepare for those times when kiddos are on the edge of a meltdown, when they are heading into the panic zone. I need tools for being able to support and soothe these kiddos in such challenging or scary times. For these times I always bring a special treat, perhaps a bar of chocolate or other item of comfort for children. My ace in the hole here is a bullet thermos of hot chocolate, but I often will bring both hot chocolate and a bar of chocolate to share. This has worked miracles for me when adventuring in the backcountry with these kiddos… in snow, in rain, after 5 miles of hiking, and more.
So we packed accordingly, prepared and ready for whatever weather may present itself. The morning of our outing was wet but with the possibility of clearing up. We packed everything, each kiddo with their own small pack of clothing and water, and me with all the climbing gear and food. My dad and sister were coming too, so it was a full on family outing. Upon our travels to town we realized that the rain would continue and there’d be no access to dry rock that day. We eventually changed plans, going for a 2 mile hike in the morning hours followed after lunch by climbing at Center 45. All in all a successful day, with adventure, fun, and time together as family. And plenty of opportunity for me to grow in my own emotional regulation as I engage in the adventurous and challenging, but always rewarding, role of parenting.