I was facing mutiny on a family hike. Why do we insist on quality time again?

It's so important to insist on spending quality family time together-even when we're hot and thirsty on a hike without a map.

illustration: Ka Younglee

We’re not one of those families that does everything together, especially when it comes to physical activity. This past summer, I remembered why.

In the middle of a forest path, my nine-year-old daughter put her hands on her hips, looked up at the sky and declared, “I’m hot and I’m tired.”

Instantly, my hands formed into fists and my jaw clenched. It was an instinctual reaction. I knew what was coming. We’d been here before. I bit my tongue and prayed for the best.

We’d rented a cottage for our summer vacation, and we’d been looking for a group activity that didn’t involve a screen. The hike had been my idea. It was met with mild enthusiasm. But the day was beautiful, and we had a new puppy who loved to explore, and let’s face it, even though it was a 10-kilometre round-trip hike up (and down) a mountain, it wasn’t challenging—we were basically walking.

That didn’t stop my daughter from complaining.

“I hate hiking. Who thought this was a good idea?”she whined.

My 11-year-old son, on the other hand, was fine. It takes a lot for him to complain. I’m not sure if it’s stoicism or if he’s just off in his head somewhere, but the net result is far less maintenance.

My husband and I realized early on we had created two very different children—it makes sense, seeing how we’re two very different people. He’s scarily smart, is always rational and has endless patience. I am compassionate and like to joke around, but I’ve got a really short fuse. The kids are strange combinations of the two of us, but as my mom’s friend once said, “Kids are like a stew—you only get out what you put in.”

Luckily, we’ve figured out how to parent them in a way that plays to our strengths: I try my best—and then call my husband in for backup, and we embrace the chaos as best we can.

So I let him catch up with our son, who had run up ahead, while I waited for our daughter. Distraction works well with her, so we stopped for multiple breaks and took our time. I pulled out the snacks, and we chatted about school, her friends and our summer so far.

Photo: courtesy of Julie Matlin

Zoe, our eight-month-old Bernese mountain dog–poodle mix, did not like this new plan. With the pack breaking up, she just went nuts, running back and forth. She didn’t understand—for her, it’s safety in numbers. For us, it’s divide and conquer.

After much walking, we eventually came to a sign indicating our trail was ending three and a half kilometres up the mountain. My daughter groaned loudly and threw her hands in the air, “Why? WHY?” My son simply bent down to pet Zoe.

We’d already done a kilometre and a half, and we were hot and thirsty. I never thought we’d make it more than a kilometre, so I was happy to turn back. But my husband plowed ahead—like he always does—without taking the temperature of the group. I would have liked us all to stop and discuss the options. But he kept going, so we followed in silence.

See, the thing is, my husband and I are not exactly masters of the art of communication. I often keep things in because I don’t like to rock the boat, while he’s not even aware we’re on a boat. Here’s a perfect example: A few years ago, we were going through a pretty bumpy patch. One night, I stopped him in the hallway and put my hand on his chest.

“I know it’s been rough. I just need to know…do you want to get out?” I asked.

He looked at me, tilted his head and checked his watch. “I don’t know. It’s 11 o’clock. Where would I go?”

“What? I didn’t mean for a drink, I meant out of the marriage.”

My husband stared at me, stunned. The thought had never even occurred to him. This was a defining moment for me. He doesn’t even remember it.

I suffer from anxiety, and I’m hyperfocused on the present—I think that if things are bad, they’ll never get better. But if I’m a sprinter, my husband’s a marathon runner. He gets that there are rough times and good times. He’s in for the long haul.

And so, there we were, on this mountain. The five of us, trying to enjoy the day, together. But we were tired, cranky and well aware the dog was drinking most of our water. The mosquitoes were biting like crazy. My daughter dramatically doubled over.

“My stomach hurts. I’m tired. I want to stop.”

There is no scale of one to 10 with my passionate daughter. It’s either one or 10. A situation is either enjoyable or intolerable. This one was intolerable.

I convinced her to go just a little farther. We were so close. We came to a T in the road, with no indication of which path to follow.

10 unorthodox (and questionable) tips for a relaxing summer with kids“It’s this way,” my husband said, turning left.

I didn’t move. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I’m not sure you’re going the right way. When I picture the map in my head…”

“Oh, for Chrissakes.”

He turned left and kept walking. Again, we followed. It was the wrong way. We figured that out when we slid down the slope into the mud and ended up in a marsh. I bit my lip. Zoe whined. As we climbed up out of the muck, pushing away branches and scratching at bites, we were on edge. Even the dog.

“I’m done,” my daughter declared.

We were 600 metres from the pinnacle.

“I’ll stay with you,” I said, resigned.

Sure, I wanted to finish the hike. It had been my idea, but I knew I’d be the one to stay. Motherhood 101. So the boys took Zoe and went ahead, while we waited for them to return.

“Was it spectacular?” I asked when they got back.

“Spectacular? Nah. It was nice, though,” my husband said.

And with that, we headed down. My husband and son took the lead; my daughter and I pulled up the rear. The dog continued racing back and forth. My daughter let out a dramatic sigh.

“SWITCH!” I yelled.

My husband stopped until we caught up and then hung back while I continued with our son.

My boy. This kid who seemingly breezes through life. He brings home straight As, has a great group of friends and has never lost the three-year-old child’s habit of asking, “Why?” But he’d never think to complain on the hike. He’d just get through it, silently counting the minutes until he could return to his beloved Minecraft.

I stopped walking and stared at him for a moment. Then I looked around. And for the first time that day, I truly saw the lush, green foliage, the bright sunshine and the majestic mountains. I watched my husband and daughter in the distance, drawing closer, and giggling with their heads together. Zoe had given up herding and was rolling around on the forest floor, enjoying the dappled light shining through the trees. At that moment, I was so fiercely grateful for everything I had.

I mean, we are five completely different beasts—this shouldn’t work. But it does. Somehow, the sweat, the bug bites and the mud made this walk through the forest even more worth it. Despite all of our differences (or perhaps because of them), we make some pretty good memories together.

Family posing for a photo in a forest
Photo: courtesy of Julie Matlin

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and felt the clean, crisp country air in my lungs.

“Mom?”

I opened my eyes.

“Isn’t this magnificent?” I asked.

My husband and daughter had caught up.

“Magnificent?” my husband asked. “Nah. It’s nice, though.”

He paused.

“But,” he continued, “if you think this is magnificent, maybe you would’ve found the summit spectacular.”

Read more:
20 great Canadian summer getaways
8 hidden gems in Toronto for families

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