What Can a Kid Do?: A Book Review

By | July 24, 2013

A 5-year-old may or may not summit every 4,000+-foot mountain in New Hampshire. Let that sink in a little. For perspective, if you live in or have visited New England, you may have climbed the popular Mt. Monadnock and felt the pain. Now realize that it is 3165 feet. Yeah. So “small” it was beneath her notice. By a thousand feet.

UpIn her mother’s book, Up, you can read all about it. About whether she made it, how she did or didn’t, and most important for some people, why did she even try?

Alex Herr is the little (now a little bigger) girl’s name. Her mother, hiking partner, and author of the book is Patricia Ellis Herr. Alex also has a sister who is quite the climber in her own right, and her name is Sage. You can follow their continuing and expanding adventures on their website.

But for now, let’s focus back on our ODAJF mission. What can you and I as parents learn from the book? Obviously Alex (and Sage) are extraordinary little girls. My 7 year old girl won’t be standing atop the Presidential Range any time soon. But that’s not really what the book is about. I don’t think P.E. Herr expected to see her little girl standing there either, if I read the book right. Until Alex did just that.

A couple different times throughout the story, mother and daughter(s) face doubtful hikers who think the poor little girl is being forced to climb by Mommy Dearest with hiking boots and backpack. Herr tries to tell them (in some cases) that in fact it is Alex that is the leader of this march. But… and here is the nugget of what I’ve been aiming at all along…

Girls wouldn’t do that on their own! But let’s unpack that rucksack a little. What precisely are these people saying?

  • That kids can’t hike? Any parent knows they have 20 times the energy we adults have.
  • That they can’t hike up a mountain because they’re girls? Muscle mass aside (which in no way comes into play for kids that young anyway, and if it did, wouldn’t smaller/lighter be an advantage, not vice-versa?) what does which private parts you have, have to do with your ability to walk an incline?
  • That children have no motivation and wouldn’t climb a mountain unless threatened and cajoled? Granted, these are big mountains, but what could come more naturally than seeing a hill and climbing to the top? Isn’t this the simplicity and honesty we value in kids?
  • Or maybe they were genuinely concerned. As I said, these are BIG hills. With real exposure and danger (a point Herr concedes in the very first chapter of the book). It’s been a few days since I finished the book so forgive me if I unwittingly paraphrase the author, but would these do-gooders prefer that Alex and Sage just sit on a nice soft couch and watch Disney Princesses and play video games, perhaps games portraying mountain climbing? (As if anyone would make that game). This is exactly what kids are so regularly criticized for!

These aren’t just questions that Herr and husband Hugh had to consider for Alex and Sage. On (perhaps) a smaller level, this is the question many of us who read this blog ask repeatedly:

Is it better for children to face some cuts and scrapes, some discomfort, in order to experience the outdoors?

When we come down to it, Alex’s climbing is the perfect metaphor. To those of us concerned with showing our kids the outdoors, how much “exposure” (danger) is too much? And frankly, how much is too little? How high has your daughter climbed in a tree? And how high do you remember climbing? I hope they’re roughly equal numbers, and when my daughter is climbing on rocks next to the ocean and I feel a little normal parental concern for her safety, I have to remember again the choice I continue to make. When I was riding her to school on a trail-a-bike during the cold part of fall, I had to ask myself each morning if it was worth it to “make” her do this? It’s only natural to want to keep our little charges safe and comfortable, but it’s up to you where to draw that line in the sand. How do you let them run a little free (climb mountains if they want to), while still being the parent/adult? Again and again, PEH discusses this in Up.

Well worth reading when you’re trying to figure it out for your own child.

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