Climbing the Walls
Date: 6th March 2005
Subject: Climbing the Walls: How Parenting Should Be
Place: National Park, North Island, New Zealand
“Mum, mum, we’re family on a boat,” shouted Matthew as he steered our ageing pedalo on a crash course towards his mum.
“So why are we still pedalling then?” replied Kirstie as her peeling yellow craft span around in circles with Cameron at the helm.
We had hired the boats from a large man who was very concerned for our safety.
“You’re not over 90kg are you?” he asked before agreeing to the rental, “cos I had a load of heffas here yesterday and they nearly sunk them. Had to put that sign up for health and safety you know.”
He pointed to a freshly chalked sign, “MAXIMUM WEIGHT 90KG.”
We assured him we were safely within the limit so he stuck some old life jackets on us and pushed us out to pedal old tin boats around busy, shark infested Akaroa harbour. We had a happy half hour and resolved to continue our water based adventures later in the trip but without pedals.
You’re too young for adventure
“No sorry, 12 is our minimum age.”
“No, I’m afraid we can’t. Not with children so young.”
“No, we can’t help you if you have under 5’s.”
It was like we’d developed some kind of disease. Nobody wanted to deal with us. Because of the children. Even here, in the land of adventure, it seems young children can be a barrier to participation in some kinds of outdoor activities.
After 16 weeks of pedalling, Kirstie and I were keen to get back on the water and hatched a plan to take a few days out to drift, paddle and camp along a safe and gentle river. Back at home we’d taken the boys out on stretches of canals, lakes and rivers in our time-share Canadian canoe so figured it would be possible here. But all the outfitters and guides we contacted either thought we were crazy or said they would love to help but couldn’t. The rules, restrictions and excuses were endless.
“Look I don’t want to endanger my kids, just give them a safe and different experience of being on a river,” I explained with exasperation to one guide.
“I understand,” she said, “You know it’s great what you’re doing with your kids, showing them the world by bike. And kids should know about rivers too but I can’t take you. I’d just feel so responsible if anything should happen…. they’re just so young. Sorry.”
It seemed the prospect of being with us, guiding us or even just renting us some equipment was just too risky for those we contacted.
Are we being irresponsible?
I began to wonder if I was irresponsible taking the boys out back at home? If I’d underestimated the risks and consequences and was putting their lives at risk? But I really don’t think so. What parent would put their children in harm’s way?
Sure there are risks when you take your kids outdoors, sure the environment is different and dynamic but the principles of keeping them safe remain the same. It’s not that different to toddler proofing your house. You do what you can to choose safe environments and control them, assess what might go wrong, fit everyone out with the right protective gear and plan how you’ll deal with any problems that occur. And as a parent you live with the consequences of those decisions every moment of everyday. With toddlers, life is a continual process of risk assessment and damage limitation, at home, on the road or on a river.
But, after two weeks of fruitless phonecalls, I was finally forced to accept that our canoe camping experience was not to be and our water based adventures were probably limited to pedalo memories of Akaroa. We’d planned for a week of canoeing and everyone was looking forward to a change of place and pace so the hole that opened up in our schedule was filled with disappointment. Unless we could find something else to fill the gap we were all going to be climbing the walls.
If they can hold their heads up, we’ll take them
“Sure, age is no problem,” said the woman the following morning much to my surprise, “We take them as soon as they can hold their heads up. Bring your boys in and we’ll get them kitted out.”
Matthew and Cameron stood there bemused by the straps and loops being wrapped and tightened around their arms and legs.
“We’re family in a harness,” said Matthew as Kirstie and I got our gear on.
“OK, come over to the wall,” said the woman leading us over to a wall splattered with holds of every shape, size and colour. Rows of brightly coloured ropes dangled down the wall, shiny metal karabiners clanking on the ends.
“These blue holds are easy climbs to start with,” said the woman as she clipped Matthew onto the end of a rope. “Now we clip this end to you,” she said attaching Matthew’s rope to my harness. “Pull like this to remove the slack and lock the rope,” she added helpfully as she showed me how to work the ropes, “and now Matthew is in your hands. If he falls you catch him.”
Matthew ventured cautiously up the wall, stretching his limbs to reach the blue holds while Cameron watched impatiently while he was clipped onto a rope and his mum. Then, with a burst of energy, the little one shot up the wall at lightening speed, quickly overtaking his brother, seemingly unaware of the heights to which he quickly scaled.
There are some moments when you notice a real difference in people’s personality, attitudes or abilities. This was one of those. I think I’d seen it on the playgrounds – his agility, lack of fear and enjoyment of movement but this was a more clear cut demonstration. As they climbed side by side, it was clear Cameron’s ascent was agile, fearless and joyful, a marked contrast to Matthew’s measured, careful and cautious outing.
The real joy of climbing
And for Cameron there was an extra buzz, a joy not just of climbing but at finding something at last that he could beat his brother at. And when they reached their personal top, Matthew a few metres up and Cameron a few metres more, we’d lower them safely back down to the ground, Matthew climbing down backwards while Cameron launched himself off, swinging around squealing,
“Wheeee, I spiderman mum.”
How parenting should be
The climbing wall was a definite hit with everyone. An activity carefully assessed and managed to ensure it was safe, adventurous and fun. The boys climbed to their limits while we kept them safe. Their life in our hands, just like everyday parenting. Just how parenting should be.