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Nature for Nurture

Much ink has been spilled on the subject of raising children, and while I am by no means a child development expert, I’ve learned a lot from my experience as part of a team raising my own two daughters.


The Wilson family backpacking the Rota Vicentina Fisherman's Way trail on the Atlantic coast of Portugal


The subject of travel as a vehicle of personal transformation has been similarly explored and I know that I’ve benefited from novel experiences in far-flung places. Seeing a sense of wonder wash across my kids’ faces as our family crested a saddle after a difficult hike to get a glimpse of a fading glacier or listened to a park ranger’s campfire talk about bats and echolocation or counted out kuna to an ice cream vendor in Croatia confirmed my hunch about the power of travel for raising curious, thoughtful, compassionate, resilient human beings.


The girls could have ice cream if they asked in the local language and counted change in the local currency


My wife and parental partner, Sherri, understands this, so she and I became co-conspirators in the plot to educate our daughters through the same types of novel experiences we enjoy and find so soul-nourishing. In order to help them cultivate life-long curiosity, we saw it as important to both confirm and challenge the model of the world they were building in their heads as they developed. This led us to spend every summer and school break living in campers and tents, wandering this country or another, far from the comforts of home.


Family time in the woods meant adapting to changing conditions, but it also meant good, quality time together


Once, on the way into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, trudging through deep sand under a blistering sun, burdened by heavy backpacks and biting black flies, the girls began to complain at the hardship. We assured them that, while we’d never been there ourselves, we knew they would love the trip once we arrived at our camp in the canyon - all that was needed right now was to bear the current discomfort and keep moving forward. Between us, Sherri and I hoped that either this prediction would come true or, if it turned out to be a dusty inferno all the way, that they would forget we ever said it.


As the cloudless morning wore on, the shallow wash we had been laboring through deepened ever so slightly, mile by mile, until we found ourselves in a canyon hundreds of feet deep. A cold, clear spring soon bubbled out of the sand, building into a stream that beckoned us to remove our steamy hiking boots and walk barefoot the rest of the way into camp. For a few days, we camped under some small trees on a sandy shelf that had formed in an opening in a bend in the canyon. We scouted downstream, playing in the water, climbing over boulders, and exploring small caves. The narrow strip of sky at the top of the canyon was a deep blue by day and a dazzling river of stars by night. We felt like we had traveled to some magical, distant planet.


After our time in the canyons, we retraced our steps up the sandy wash. Being back in the hot sun must have reminded my older daughter, then fifteen or so, about her complaints of a few days earlier. She walked up alongside me, slipped her hand into mine, and said, “Papa, you were right. That was the best trip ever.” Cue inner parental celebration: For once, a teachable moment was executed with the desired results.


The Wilson family pauses for a photo on a ten-day Green River canoe trip through Utah


Each new place or experience generated meetings with new people different from us. It spawned conversations exploring those differences and helped all of us to get a better picture of what in the world is real and true. Those outer explorations were mirrored by inner ones as we pondered the constantly revealed truth that, while we are all different from one another, we are also the same.


When we finally took the girls to Europe, we decided to make the most of the cost of the flights by staying at least a month. Our thinking was something along the lines of an eighth-grade math test: Tickets cost $X. If you stay a week, your vacation will cost $X ÷ 7 + daily living expenses. If you stay a month, your vacation will cost $X ÷ 30 + daily living expenses. In order to make the economics of a longer trip like that work, we car camped instead of staying in hotels. Not only did we save money, but instead of sharing hotels with other American tourists, we shared campgrounds with European tourists. Getting to know our camp mates often turned into long discussions about cultural differences and similarities. We ate in restaurants sparingly, opting to shop for groceries and cook our own meals at camp. Grocery shopping became a scavenger hunt, and sometimes a hilarious misadventure, learning enough language to mostly find what we needed and enough about the currency to make calculations in our heads.


Make a plan when you travel, but be open to random invitations - they just might create a very memorable night


At a small campground in the French Pyrenees, the owner invited us to share a paella dinner with about a half-dozen retired French couples. Our family of four sat at a picnic table with two of the couples and we made bumbling attempts to communicate, to everyone’s amusement. Our older daughter was in high school at the time, having studied one year of French, so she translated bits and pieces for us in what became a very memorable evening of stories from both sides. It felt like a convivial game of telephone that just happened to include copious amounts of rosé and shellfish. I remember that the next day my face and belly hurt from smiling and laughing so much.


As a way to break up week-long spells of sleeping on the ground, we often found agritourism stays at very small, family-run farms. One day, pulling into a Spanish village on the Portuguese border, our host told us that we were arriving just as a class of schoolchildren were scheduled to tour the old farm. Part of this education in their forebears' agrarian way of life was a hands-on class in making bread from scratch, to be baked in what had historically been the village’s shared, wood-fired oven.

Making friends thousands of miles from home


Our girls, then 12 and 15, fell in with the thirty-odd kids, who ranged from about six to nine years old. The kids laughed and jostled as they kneaded dough, shoulder to shoulder, around long, shallow troughs under a shed roof in the farmyard. While the loaves were rising, they passed the time singing and playing games. Although our Spanish was somewhat limited and the Spanish kids spoke no English, everyone was surprised to find that they all knew the same pop songs. At one point they broke into the “Cup Song,” complete with hand movements, which was very popular with the tween set at the time. By the time the kids left the farm, the younger ones were hugging and kissing our girls goodbye, all fast friends.


Sometimes the lessons are harder to impart, like the time we hiked to a dying glacier in Great Basin National Park. Reading the interpretive sign at the base of the shrunken ice field, our daughters wondered aloud at the tragedy of climate change, making earnest promises to help fix the problem. Those pre-teen promises turned into lifelong commitments to environmentalism - a deep understanding that our finite habitat needs protection. They’re both keenly aware of the challenges their generation faces on that front.


Getting out in nature helps teach sense of personal and societal responsibility to the environment


Even more difficult to explain was the “Shoes on the Danube” sculpture in Budapest, which consists of rows of bronze shoes affixed to the stone embankment. It memorializes the 3,500 Jews and others who were told to remove their shoes, which were valuable, before they were shot and their bodies thrown into the Danube by Hungarian fascists during the Second World War. At first, the sculpture elicited curious questions. As we explained the meaning to them, it opened a longer conversation over many sessions as they grappled with how to fit this into their map of the human world.

Learning hard lessons along the Danube in Budapest, Hungary


Many parents might wonder why we would expose our kids to the horror of man's inhumanity to man (to be fair, they seemed ready to talk about these things by the time they were twelve or so). The only answer I can give is that I believe that one of the only ways to fulfill one’s obligations and responsibilities as a human and as a citizen of a democratic society is to build a true understanding of history and science. If we only learn the good news, bad ideas like fascism, which we should have put to bed once and for all after World War II, find its way back and these grim histories are repeated. If we learn the lessons of history as individuals, we can build a better future collectively. Then, maybe we can stop building so many memorials.


Attempting to understand difficult things in the past also builds our own individual resilience and anti-fragility. Reading or hearing about how others overcame adversity helps us put our own misfortunes into perspective. Far from damaging our kids with difficult information, by presenting it carefully and giving time to talk it through, it strengthens them.


Our girls have grown into curious, compassionate, well-informed young women. Even better, they’ve retained the sense of curiosity that is sometimes beaten out of us by peer pressure in our early teens, which I believe helps to protect them against the insidious pressures of modern groupthink. Predictably, they’ve gone into professions that benefit their fellow humans: One is fighting climate change by supporting cleantech energy startups while the other works on 3D printing of lifesaving human organs and tissue.


Teachable moments come fast and furiously when you're out to see the world


Of course, they still travel, farther and wider than we have, boasting friends on multiple continents. What’s more, they’ve said that they, too, will raise their own kids on the same steady diet of exploration and adventure, ensuring that a new generation will share nature for nurture.


Where have you traveled with your own kids? What lessons did you learn? What did I miss? Comment below and subscribe to our monthly email newsletter so you don’t miss a thing!


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