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Beginner Skills

Why Outdoor Parents Need to Break the Rules

Some parenting dogma is made for breaking and the backcountry is the place to do it.

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At the toe of the Root Glacier in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, my young children strapped on crampons. While 5-year-old Kyra, already in her spikes, tried to catch white wisps of a dryas seedhead drifting in a breeze fresh off the glaciers, my husband tightened adult instep crampons on our 2-year-old, Ethan.

We are an adventurous family, but even so, I knew that things could go horribly wrong when a toddler is toddling around on ice with knives attached to his feet. While there may not be rules specifically against this, it’s definitely not in the parenting handbook. But it’s not that we’re reckless, it’s that we—well, I—believe that the risks are worth it. Life is packed with rules, and kids may feel like the whole point is to learn the “right” way to behave. I wanted—and still want—for my kids to think the outdoors is a place where they can test the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

On the moraine, it was hard not to feel doubt in the slow chaos of ice, rocks, and silt in a landscape torn apart by forces beyond human. Before we had time to second-guess taking kids onto this collision zone between two glaciers, Kyra took off up the slick sides of the ice field. Ethan tried to follow and tripped. I nearly choked.

He picked himself up before I reached him, joining Kyra beside a puddle of water the same blue as the sky. Kyra jumped in and stomped as if she were barefoot in a tub of grapes. Clink. Clink. Clink.

Behind her, beneath a 7,000-foot vertical wall of ice, water carved the glacier surface into ravines and shafts called moulins. The kids laughed and played. But for the briefest moment, I regretted bringing the kids. There were grander things I could do here without them, safer things I could do with them. But then, I would not have seen these natural phenomena through a child’s eyes, a window that’s only open for a few innocent years. I would never have sprawled belly first on ice, giggling as the four of us slurped glacier water through bright red Twizzlers.

And they would never be able to show their friends photos of their tiny bodies bent against such extremes, our family balanced with one foot on each side of a deep crevasse, broken rules laying in shambles under our spiked feet. 

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