As Katherine and I drove our minivan towards the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we tried to ignore the kids complaining in the backseat, their three tiny voices whining in unison.
“I don’t want to go for a hike!”
It was a luscious spring day. After a long winter stuck in our basement playroom, we had recently started taking the kids for hikes on Sundays to nurture their love of the outdoors.
The sunlight streaming through the windows felt luxuriant on our faces.
Yet it seemed to be the opposite for the kids. It took a combination of threats and bribes to wheedle them into the van. Cruising south from our Cleveland neighborhood, I turned up the radio to drown out the noise.
Our family only had one 13-inch TV with eight channels when I was young. My mom kept close tabs on our television time. If I tried to sneak it, she would storm in and yell, “Go outside and play!” Then she clicked the power button on the thick brick of a remote, let the screen wink into a little white star, and swept us out the door like a traffic cop.
We were allowed to go anywhere, as long as we stayed on our block. Our summers and spring breaks were spent playing games there. Even our trips were outside, often to the South Chagrin Reservation. On Sunday afternoons after church, we stomped through streams in our ratty old tennis shoes, skipped stones and swam in waterfalls after jumping off them.
Katherine and I only have one flat-screen in our house. But the kids also have tablets. We let them watch an hour of shows after school and on weekends, less than the two hours per day pediatricians recommend. Yet after streaming Power Rangers episodes back to back, they lie on the couch and complain there’s nothing to do. They’re bored, and I feel like a terrible parent.
Partly, they’re bored because they can’t go out alone. We can walk or bike to plenty of places from the Gordon Square Arts District, where we’ve lived for 10 years, including Edgewater Park. Yet we still have to chaperone the kids. None of the parents we know let their kids play unsupervised.
Katherine and I also work full-time, so we sometimes plop the kids in front of a show when we’re on a deadline. And of course, we’re on our phones a lot. I’m sure it has all entered their young brains as a mishmash of messages. Get out more, but don’t go too far! Screen time is bad, but not really!
As I turned off the highway, I noticed the Technicolor grass, soaring trees and verdant fields. Just minutes before, the minivan had felt like pushing a broken shopping cart with a sideways wheel. Now there was no sound in the car except for the radio. The kids’ noses were pressed to the windows.
I opened them, and a breeze filled the car. We entered the happy state of flow that always makes me want to spend more time outside as a family. It’s a pain to get the kids out here. But once we arrive, I’ve found they usually enjoy hiking if you follow a few simple rules.
First, keep the hike under two miles. Getting stranded on the trail with whiny kids is no fun for anyone. Second, make sure there are rocks, logs and streams where they can play. You may enjoy a long, flat trail. They probably won’t. Third, loops are preferred over out-and-backs. By the time the kiddos start complaining, you can say, “We’re almost there.” You won’t even be lying!
Our excursion was headed for Blue Hen Falls: no loop, but the trail was short, with tons of rocks, logs and streams. Excellent.
The kids sprang down the path, and we reached the falls. Spring snowmelt leapt off a rocky ridge, forming a shallow pool below. In the stream, kids in bathing suits and water shoes splashed around. Parents watched and a teenage couple spooned together on the rocks, oblivious.
The boys, Nathan and Jonathan, took off their shoes immediately. Our oldest, Emily, soon followed. They threw rocks in the water, competing to see who could make the biggest splash, and squeezed mud between their toes.
I climbed up a stream bank to watch. Three-year-old Jonathan hadn’t even noticed I was gone. He bent down to pat the water like a dog’s head. His shock of strawberry-red hair gleamed in the sun, as the water ran downhill and danced over fallen logs.
While the kids played, Katherine and I soaked up the sunshine. After an hour, it was time to go. The kids were messy and dirty but no one had fallen in or gotten hurt, so I smiled and quietly said, “Mission accomplished.”
We headed back up the hill, and none of the three kids complained that they were tired or asked for a piggyback ride. They were too busy discussing the bribe we’d offered them (ice cream). As the gravel crunched beneath my pleasantly tired feet, I felt a wave of happiness. We were all there, together in the moment, with no phones or complaints.
As soon as they spotted the minivan, the kids started sprinting towards it. They argued and jostled, each trying to get there first.
The peace hadn’t lasted long. But it was enough.