My wife and I are about an hour’s hike to Atalaya Peak, a 9,000 foot mountain overlooking our hometown of Santa Fe. It is a moderately difficult six mile trail to the top and back. , and we have just arrived at the last stretch, where the climb becomes steep. Our only child, Henry, 11, is still talking. And talk. In fact, he hasn’t closed his mouth since we got out of the car at the trailhead.
For 90 minutes, Henry described his ideal home, a presentation of conscience on a 13-story building in a city somewhere (I think it’s New York; there are a lot of details to follow). Her dream home is mostly made up of pretty, chic rooms for playing video games and watching movies, but there’s also a chef’s kitchen and a swimming pool tucked away somewhere in the design.
“What do you think? Does that sound like a cool place to live? He asks.
“Yes, quite expensive anyway. You better work hard and get a good job, ”I replied, checking the box dad, turning something trivial into a learning moment. “Okay, I have to focus on my breathing now, so if I’m not saying much that’s why,” I told him, feeling like a complete jerk for essentially telling my son that I needed a little break from her chatter.
It has been a terrible year for all of us, especially the children. The pandemic has wiped out the kind of routine social interaction we all took for granted. No team sports, no movies, no museums, no sleepovers, no playdates. Parents face the double task of making sure their children get the physical activity they need and of trying to replace wasted hours of socialization. Fortunately, our family has at least had miles and miles of hikes to fill some of that void on both fronts.
But it was an adjustment. These are not quiet, contemplative walks in nature. Not with Henri. Each outing is part of an extended soliloquy, but also of an endless question-and-answer session. Like many children his age, my son asks a lot of questions. So. Numerous. Questions. Answering all of them can sometimes seem too much to bear, especially when I just want to admire the changing leaves, listen to a stream go by, or just not collapse dragging myself down a slope.
But as the pandemic summer progressed, our hikes proved to be essential learning experiences and a vital way to stay sane as a family. Given their sudden and disproportionate importance, I had a few questions myself, for example, what causes a child to filibuster like this, and am I doing okay? with my son in our outdoor classroom? So I contacted an expert for information.
“The brain, like other parts of the body, needs exercise to stay healthy,” explains Tracy Inman, Associate Director of the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University. “For our heart health, we know the importance of aerobic exercise, supplemented by sweating, shortness of breath and flushing. Athletic sweat is very different from academic sweat. The gifted brain thrives on novelty and complexity. So your son’s endless questions strengthen his brain. It links this new information you provide to what it already knows, understands, or is able to do. The more complex the information, the better the brain works.
Apparently, we’re doing something right: we’re doing our best to answer all of his questions, and he knows no topics are off limits. It created some awkward moments, like when I had to explain why the internet thinks 420 and 69 memes are so hilarious. (The first was easy to decode, the second needed a little darkening.) Or, “Why are golden retrievers such bad dogs?” He asked within earshot of people walking with the two of them (off leash, of course).
There are also the more serious issues, the things we need to talk about to make sense of what’s going on in the world. These sparked discussions of issues such as racial inequality and gender identity that may never have happened while stealing moments between extracurricular activities and deadlines for work in a pre world. -COVID. I am grateful that we had time on our hikes to talk about important and uncomfortable topics without the interruptions of everyday life.
We also use the hikes to ask Henry questions. “Listening is obvious, but asking questions is just as important,” says Inman. “The questions show that you are interested in what he is saying and allow him to dig a little deeper. “
So while I don’t understand most of the details he offers in a half-hour description of how he would design his perfect video game or the layout of his proposed 100,000-square-foot townhouse, we ask for more information on this. An added bonus: it’s a welcome distraction when the hike starts to get tough.
Our long walk and talk sessions also address the socialization challenge that the pandemic continues to present, according to Inman. It surprised me. It’s been eight months since my son has been surrounded by kids his age, and while I like to think we’re pretty cool parents (I mean, his grandparents would never have let him watch. Super bad), I know we can get boring. On our hikes, however, he spends time with what Inman calls his “companion ideas,” which helps satisfy his curiosity. Each conversation promotes his intellectual and emotional development.
While marathon conversations can be as exhausting as mountain climbing, they have also been a learning experience for us. No adventure you will read on this site is as agonizing as taking care of a child, but every trip is like a progress report, an assurance that we are not raising a future junk-bond trader or an internet troll.
Most significant of all is that this is the time we spend together. His teenage years are just over the horizon; it won’t be long before he needs and wants to do something other than hiking with his parents. I will miss every long minute of these conversations when the time comes. And as much as it tests our endurance, at this point I’m afraid that nature seem lonely without his non-stop chatter.