Parenting

Pretty parenting: Not always what it seems

Don't hate Susan — it only looks like she's got this parenting thing down pat.

This peaceful moment was made possible thanks to the promise of bouncy castles and M&Ms.

We went for a hike last Saturday afternoon — a four-kilometre loop that took us through beaver-dam territory, frog marshes, and boreal forest. It had rained heavily the previous weekend, and we giggled as we balanced precariously on logs thrown across muddy patches and rushing water. At different points on the trail, I held each of my sons’ hands in my own as we walked in contemplative silence for stretches through the woods. At one point, the boys turned off the path and discovered a treasure trove of quartz and other crystals; they spent 20 or more minutes playing on the rocks, which, they informed us, were home to magical dragons that we — parental nonbelievers — couldn’t see. While they played, Rachel and I sat and chatted on a rock cliff warmed by the sun.

You hate me by now, don’t you? Well, maybe you don’t, but if I were you, I’d hate me. I hate reading posts about families who get it together enough to go on wholesome activities like hikes, where everything is idyllic and sunshiny and children scamper off happily into nature to play with imaginary dragons, nary a screen in sight.

That’s OK, though. Because you may hate me less if you know that we didn’t actually tell the children we were going on a hike until everybody was already buckled into the speeding car, on our way home from the Farmer’s Market. You may hate me less if you know that the only reason we got to the Farmer’s Market in the first place was through promises of the cake and bouncy castles there. You may hate me less if you know that there was much screaming of, “No! We don’t waaaaannnnnt to go on a hike! And that’s two of us who say no and only two of you who say yes so we don’t have to go!” in the car on the way to the wholesome countryside. You may hate me even less if you know that I purposely packed mini M&Ms in the hiking pack and doled them out at regular intervals as incentive to keep going, that I not-so-silently heaved a sigh of relief when we rounded the halfway point of our loop and I knew that there was, officially, no going back.

Sometimes — when I hear about families who hike together, when I see vacation photos on Facebook full of smiling children and relaxed-looking parents — I forget that we see only part of the story. I forget that, for all families, most adventures with children involve some degree of negotiation, that there’s a backstory to the photographs that may have involved a tantrum or two, or at least some M&Ms. As a parent, as a storyteller (and as a perfectionist), I need to remind myself to look at the whole picture. We all have back-seat protests, and we all — thankfully, hopefully? — get to watch our kids play dragons in the rocks. The trick, apparently, is to acknowledge the challenges but focus on the triumphs.

That’s what I tell myself, at least. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’re the only set of parents grimly forcing our children to enjoy nature via bribery.

Yeah. And maybe those dragons are real.