I clench my tongue tightly to keep from shouting commands at my five-year old daughter as her concentration flitters away from the climbing wall like a disrupted butterfly; off into la-la land. For the most part, she was only mildly interested in rock climbing when I first took her to the local indoor gym. After wrestling some very sloppy fitting, but very cute, rock climbing shoes on her feet, we roped up, chalked up, and she went up. This lasted for exactly five seconds.
Somewhere between barely leaving the ground, and me, the belayer, still being able to reach out and tickle her armpit, she would become deeply distracted. During winter nights indoor climbing gyms are an energetic scene of stone-faced climbers, dating couples, and various misfits—all wildly interesting to a rapt five-year old. Her neck relentlessly craning to check out the surrounding action was getting more exercise than her limbs on the wall, and after several minutes of very little upward progress, fatigue overcame her and it was over.
I want my kids to be strong. Not just physically fit, but mentally strong. I want them to have grit and determination. I want them to feel like they have it within themselves to stare difficulty down and instead of avoiding or running from it, to face it head on. Our life’s experiences and what we have been pushed by others to accomplish in the past, can largely determine our amount of mental fortitude and faith in what we are capable of on our own in the future. Although she was only five, I couldn’t let her get away with failure on the wall when I could see that nothing more than a terse attention span was to blame. “Make it to the top in less than one minute and I’ll buy you a Barbie on the way home,” I said. Sixty seconds later she was rappelling down from the top and we were headed to Walmart.
So what? A cute story maybe, but there is more to it. Having pushed through the challenge once, albeit via a bribe, and enduring whatever discomfort was present, she felt the reward of completion and a tiny fire was lit in her mind that effort and strain are followed by the satisfaction of accomplishment. During subsequent trips to the gym is was clear that this previous small victory was etched into her mind and would buoy her to the top many times in the future. Whatever grit is, I believe moments like these that cultivate it.
I haven’t been an amazing dad when it comes to intentionally seeking out these types of moments, but my children are still young and I intend to. The process starts by recognizing that quality and memorable recreation is typically harder than work, and is often best when seasoned with the intermittent discomfort of growth. If you wait for the perfect time when your life isn’t too busy and the weather is gentle, sadly you won’t get out much—and consequently neither will your children.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this topic during a season-closing, wintery campout last weekend. Teetering on top of the frigid 9000 foot Wellsville Mountains, on the bleeding edge of Cache Valley, Utah, I was in awe and profoundly inspired that my friends Jason and Kory had each brought one of their relatively young kids along. In more favorable weather I still would have been impressed, but for a child to proudly shoulder a respectable pack in near-freezing conditions and summit a giant mountain in complete darkness, cemented in my mind that raising exceptional, adventurous kids doesn’t happen by mistake. Both of them hiked with little complaint, and seemed genuinely mesmerized by the 360 degree view the next morning. I am sure this short trip left small, but not insignificant, marks on their characters and will push them towards similar endeavors in the future on the mountain and in other realms of life. As a parent, witnessing the good example of two friends guiding their children up an formidable mountain made something click in my own mind and resolve to put more effort into cultivating grit within my kids.
Unplug. Temporarily quiet the noise of electronics and take your kids on an adventure. Something real. Let them feel the burn of the climb, the sting of hot or cold, and the rewards that follow… even if it takes a few Barbies along the way.
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