As a kid, the one thing I really wanted was to ride a motorcycle. I ached for it. But it was not to be. While my parents were adventure enthusiasts, they’d met while on a group hike in college, my dad was dead set against things with engines. I remember watching longingly as guys on dirt bikes passed us on some of our hikes - my dad muttering in the background about all the “noise and dust” and asking rhetorically why anyone would want to ride such a machine when you could be on your two feet properly enjoying nature.
My dad must have known how much I truly wanted to ride because one winter while on a ski trip in Colorado at about eight years old, he gave in and rented a snowmobile. I was ecstatic and happily hopped on front while dad drove me around the parking lot. He then decided he’d actually run it down the trail near the cabin a bit, but instead promptly drove into a snow drift. I panicked and flatly refused to get back on.
Looking back, I think my dad was probably really hurt and disappointed. He wasn’t great at connecting with me, so he never said much about it except one complaint about the wasted rental fee, but as a father now, I can feel his frustration. Kids are fickle. It can suck.
It’s odd to me to be writing commentary on teaching stuff to kids. It feels like something my dad should still be doing, not me, I’m still too young. But Dad passed away 10 years ago, and with my own kids now 10 and 12 respectively, I’ve decided to share my evolving experiences getting them into outdoor adventures - WannaBes style.
The Next Generation
As a kid, we hiked, camped, canoed, and camped some more. I hated most of it. While this was before the days of internet, YouTube, and modern video games, it was still super boring to be stuck in the wilderness with your parents. We never brought friends along, and my parents believed that the only things worth doing were hard things. Like 10 hour hikes with a 4, 7, and 10 year old in tow.
When I finally escaped into my mid-teens and early twenties, I wanted nothing to do with camping or hiking. When my dad passed away in 2009, I promptly sold, gave away, or threw out almost every single bit of outdoor equipment he had stockpiled. To be fair, most of it had molded or collapsed, but my real motivation was putting that part of my life behind me permanently. I rode street bikes, took trips via hotels, and studied law. Fitness meant lifting weights or jogging at the track.
But then something happened that I did not expect. My kids learned to walk. It's not that I ever assumed they wouldn’t, but there’s something that shifts inside of you as your first child moves from being completely dependent on you as an infant to having some autonomy as a toddler. They start to take on an initiative that’s thrilling to both them and you.
Suddenly it matters what you do with your life, because someone’s coming up behind and you know they’re watching. You start to think seriously about what life should look like for them, and it’s inevitable that you take a second look back at your own childhood - this time with perspective. Almost overnight, I saw my parents and my childhood in a shifting light. I wasn’t at all convinced they’d done things right, I’m still not. But I did begin to understand where they may have been coming from.
We inevitably want our kids to like the things we like, and we assume they’ll feel similar to us when we were kids. In my case, I firmly believed my kids would desperately want to ride motorcycles just like me. After all, I’d spent most of my tweens pining for a bike, of course they would too - best to give them early access.
I started introducing my kids to motorsports and a few outdoor adventures. In the beginning, this mostly meant setting them on my street bikes and letting them hold the handles for a couple of minutes.
Or taking them camping at the beach, which is admittedly pretty tame.
But things evolved quickly. As a fresh college grad, I was broke, so I turned to cycling as a sport that didn’t have to cost much but could still afford me outdoor time with the kids. We went through a series of bike trailers and attachments in an effort to get the kids acclimated to riding.
As they got older, we pushed them hard to develop their own skills. Hiking, cycling, camping - for real. And in a couple of years I transformed into my dad. It was absolutely unintentional and came on subtly. But today it’s unmistakable.
Kids pick their own path
Along the way, I’ve learned something super interesting. Something I hear repeatedly from other parents I know or meet.
Kids don’t always want to do what you hope they will want to do.
All along, the end goal for me was to get my kids ready to go dirt biking. All the training, hiking, cycling, was all skill building towards that end. I assumed they’d thank me for it.
When we finally had the means, we sprung for a Honda CRF50 and enough gear to keep the kids in one piece while they learned to ride it. I could barely contain my anticipation the first time we took it out into the yard to let them ride it.
They could barely contain their tears. Not good tears. Turns out despite all my efforts to help them skill build, they were terrified of the bike and didn’t seem to have any motivation to overcome. I flashed back to that day I refused to get back on the snowmobile and suddenly life began to click together in my mind. My dad’s disappointment, my own arrogance.
I don’t have any magic answers about how to raise kids. It’s hard, frustrating and exhausting at times. It’s also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever attempted. As I talk to other parents through my own adventures, I see a common theme, kids not really interested in the hobbies of their parents.
It’s super disappointing for us parents to invest a lot of money and effort into getting our kids kitted out and trained up for some sport only to have them drag their feet every time we go out. It’s easy to start to feel we’ve done something wrong, or that maybe *gasp* there’s something wrong with our kids.
I’ve spent several years beating my head against this wall. When I first started taking my kids hiking, they hated it. Every time I announced a hike, they broke down sobbing. On steep hills they’d threaten to go back home (alone if necessary) and all they talked about the whole time was how scary it all was.
But we kept at it and after a little while, they got good. As their kills improved, so did their attitude. Before long, they were keeping up with me on some pretty grueling hikes, going further up the Forest Falls canyon, for example, than even my dad had ever gotten me as a kid. The best part, they actually had fun doing it.
About a year ago, we evolved into mountain biking. I hoped their positive learning curve with hiking would paint this new sport in a better light. But it was not to be. Almost the exact same pattern promptly repeated. They cried, they threw their bikes down at the top of the first real hill and walked home. They refused to try stuff I knew without a doubt they could nail.
Again, I kept at it, and within a couple of months, sure enough, their skill started building and so did their confidence. Today, they’ll ride with me through just about anything without much fuss. I could not be more proud or impressed.
What about Dirt Biking
When we finally were able to get the kids proper dirt bikes, I was no longer under the illusion they’d just love it right off. I saw the pattern finally and, as it turned out, all their prior skill building was actually finally paying off. I hadn’t realized it fully, but my initial idea of training them up was actually working. It had just taken 6 years instead of a few months to really implement.
We got the kids each an appropriately sized starter bike: a 2001 XR100 for Jake and a 1996 XR80 for Eve. The XRs are great for learning clutch work. They’re bullet proof, nearly impossible to stall, and don’t take off racing like a 2-stroke might if you get on the throttle. In short, tame and hardy.
As expected, we started with the tears and the “No, I can’ts”. But I think even for them it’s starting to ring hollow. I remind them we’ve been through this and overcome our fears before. I point out that they’ll tackle the exact same hill on a mountain bike, why not try it on the XR. I promise them their gear will keep them safe. We practice clutch release in the safety of the driveway.
And finally, the effort starts to pay off. We’re still in the midst of the initial learning curve, but two weeks ago Jake and I rode to the top of the small mountain behind our house and I only had to help him with two of the worst hill climbs. By the time we reached the last hill, he powered up full throttle with the biggest grin on his face I’d seen in ages. Of course, he also power looped the little XR100 right off the side just five feet shy of the top, but that’s a familiar mistake to anyone who’s touched a dirt bike - I’m sure he’ll learn from it.
Coming full circle
That night at bed time I asked Jake about the ride, not sure at all what his take might be. He grinned at me and said “dad, that was really fun, I just hit the throttle and it went right up stuff”. Yes son, I know the feeling!!
I’ve realized these last few days that my transformation into my dad is just about complete. We have almost as much camping gear hoarded as he did all those years ago. We spend our free weekends on grueling adventures in the wilderness (though we’re on wheels instead of our feet and you’ll never hear me complain about the dust or the noise). I spend more on kids gear than I should, and waaay less on the toys they beg me for than they’d like (just like my dad).
But in the end, I think there’s still one key difference between my dad and me. I have a community. For my dad, the wilderness was an escape from people. He liked the solitude, he wanted to be alone.
I do enjoy the quiet of the forest, but for me the real adventure is the people I adventure with. The friends and family we go out with make all the difference. There’s nothing quite like taking my son on a camping trip started by fathers of my good friends, a multi generational adventure. And it’s in this passing of the torch that I hope my kids will most be like me - whatever sports or hobbies they end up choosing for themselves or eventually for their own kids.