Are You an Elk Parent or a Bison Parent?

A few weeks ago, while visiting Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico, my family and I were out on a wildlife safari in a remote valley when we spotted a newborn elk calf wobbling across the road, trailed by its mother. It was late May, the beginning of calving season, and the baby elk was minutes old, its fur still wet. When it saw us, it flopped to the ground, while the cow bolted in the opposite direction, running up a ridge until she was out of sight. Distressed, we watched the calf flatten itself into the dirt, all alone. 

Our guide, Pete, explained, “This is what elk mothers do. When predators approach, they run away, leaving their babies, who aren’t strong enough to walk. Most of the time, the mothers come back for their calves but only after the danger has passed.” After a minute, we drove on, not wanting to scare the mother away for good, while Pete continued, “Bison mothers do the opposite. After their babies are born, they’ll stand their ground, snort, and charge to keep them safe.” 

Afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about the difference between elk mamas and bison mamas. Their two styles of parenting seemed to encapsulate everything I’d been wrestling with since becoming a mother—the fine line between giving kids too much independence and too little, overprotection and tough love, smothering and neglect.

My own approach to child-rearing has spanned the spectrum. When my girls were infants and toddlers, I was terrified that I’d forget them in a field while hiking and they’d be eaten by coyotes, or that left alone at home, they’d choke on a grape or get tangled in blind cords. Their vulnerability triggered something primal and bison-like in me, and their survival was paramount, the single most defining focus of my life. Deep down, though, my inner elk grieved the freedom I’d lost when they were born; I needed time to myself to run and think and write. I hired babysitters, enrolled them in part-time daycare, and tried to tend to my own needs while tending to theirs. The time apart was as essential as it was wrenching: I hated to leave, but I always came home happier, calmer, and more myself than when I’d left.  

Now that my daughters are older, the bison in me has taken a back seat. At ages eight and ten, they’re responsible enough to walk to school and back alone. They can use public restrooms without me, ride the chairlift solo, and help paddle a pack raft down Class II rapids. They’re big enough to stay home alone and not have every minute scheduled and to be bored. None of this is by chance: we’ve practiced and prepped for this progression—my husband and I as much as them. It takes training to let go. 

In today’s parenting culture, this isn’t always a popular position. Over the past generation, child-rearing has become a competitive sport, our kids’ performance a measure of our own worth, an approach that requires more intensive parental supervision than ever before. “Snowplow parents,” the latest incarnation of helicopter parents, strive to eliminate all obstacles and hardships in the way. Such hypervigilance isn’t always in the service of our kids, though. An essential part of growing up is learning to assess risk, develop grit and resilience, and hone problem-solving skills without parents always butting in. 

As Jessica Lahey writes in her bestselling book The Gift of Failure, “In order to raise healthy, happy kids who can begin to build their own adulthood separate from us, we are going to have to extricate our egos from our children’s lives and allow them to feel the pride of their own accomplishments as well as the pain of their own failures.” 

bison
A baby elk (Katie Arnold)

I come by my elk inclinations honestly. My own mother, like most moms in the seventies and eighties, specialized in a brand of loving, yet laissez-faire parenting typical of the time. Sure, she baked us cookies, took us to the mall to buy jeans, and was always waiting for us when we got home from school, but she was definitely not running bison interference for me the day I almost got beat up in a phone booth at junior high. (“What are you looking at?” the class bully demanded. “Nothing much,” I replied, without thinking. Whoops.) Thanks to her, though, I learned to be tough, stand up for myself, and, when that didn’t work, run like hell—skills that still serve me well and that I hope to pass on to my daughters. 

A week after we got back from Vermejo, we all biked into the Valles Caldera National Preserve with some friends and their children. When we reached a clear, shin-deep trout stream, the dads started fly-fishing, and the four kids, ages seven to ten, had a picnic. I kept riding another ten miles, across high valleys fringed by aspens. By the time I got back, the fathers were nowhere in sight and the children were alone in the meadow. For a moment I panicked, the bison mama in me imagining a mountain lion stalking our sweet ones from the edge of the forest. Then I looked more closely. The kids were building elaborate bark boats and floating them down the meandering rivulet in a mock regatta. I sat in the grass and watched, awed by their focus and creativity, not wanting to interfere. If I hadn’t been such an elk that day and had skipped my ride to hang out with them, they might have complained of being bored or hungry. They might have expected to be entertained. Instead they entertained me

I was still feeling smug about my elk parenting when, a few days later, I sent my ten-year-old, Pippa, on a walk with our black Lab, Pete. Half an hour later, she ran up the driveway, sobbing so hard she could barely talk, with Pete at her heels. She’d crossed onto private property, as we often do on our family walks, skirting an unoccupied house under construction. A worker had yelled at her that she was trespassing, then trailed her in his truck to make sure she left. Terrified that he wanted to hurt her, she hid in the bushes, then ran home the long way. She was unhurt, thankfully, but deeply shaken.

I went over scenarios in my head: I should have taught Pippa not to go onto private property. I should have reminded her to run straight home if she found herself scared or in trouble. I should have given her a walkie-talkie (she doesn’t have a phone). Maybe, like a good bison mother, I shouldn’t have let her go alone in the first place. 

But then I remembered: life isn’t black and white. Good parenting can’t be reduced to labels, either-or, this or that. Sometimes, like the day in the caldera, we can be elk, but other circumstances demand that we step up and be bison. Maybe we can learn to be both at the same time. 

This story might have ended here, but a few weeks ago, as I was finishing this piece, Pippa emerged from her room where she’d been reading. “I’m bored,” she announced.

“Why don’t you walk down to the library?” I suggested. Then I remembered. “Are you worried because of what happened last time?”

“No,” she said. 

Good girl, I thought. 

“Don’t talk to strangers,” I reminded her. “Ask to use the phone if you need to call me.” 

“OK,” she said. And with that, she gave a little wave and turned and walked down the driveway.

Outside Magazine: All

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