My wife and I are about an hour into a hike up Atalaya Peak, a 9,000-foot mountain overlooking our hometown of Santa Fe. It’s a moderately difficult six-mile trail to the top and back, and we’ve just arrived at the final stretch, where the ascent gets steep. Our only child, 11-year-old Henry, is still talking. And talking. In fact, he hasn’t closed his mouth since we stepped out of the car at the trailhead.
For 90 minutes, Henry’s been describing his ideal home, a stream-of-conscience presentation about a 13-story building in a city somewhere (I think it’s New York; there are a lot of details to keep track of). His dream house mostly consists of some pretty swank rooms for playing video games and watching movies, but there is also a chef’s kitchen and pool tucked somewhere into the design.
“What do you think? Does that sound like a cool place to live?” he asks.
“Yeah, pretty expensive though. You’d better work hard and get a good job,” I reply, checking the dad box by transforming something innocuous into a teachable moment. “OK, I have to focus on my breathing now, so if I don’t say much, that’s why,” I tell him, feeling like a real jerk for basically announcing to my son that I need a little break from his chatter.
It’s been a terrible year for all of us, especially kids. The pandemic has eliminated the kind of routine social interaction we’ve all taken for granted. No team sports, no movies, no museums, no sleepovers, no playdates. Parents face the dual tasks of making sure their kids are getting the physical activity they need as well as trying to replace the lost hours of socialization. Fortunately, our family has at least had miles and miles of hikes to fill some of that void on both fronts.
But it has been an adjustment. These are not quiet, contemplative walks in nature. Not with Henry. Each outing is part extended soliloquy but also part endless Q and A session. Like a lot of kids his age, my son asks a lot of questions. So. Many. Questions. Answering them all can feel like too much to bear sometimes, especially when I simply want to admire the changing leaves, listen to a stream roll by, or just not collapse while dragging myself up a slope.
But as the pandemic summer passed by, our hikes have revealed themselves as essential learning experiences and a vital way to stay sane as a family. Given their sudden outsize importance, I had some questions of my own—like, what drives a kid to filibuster like this, and am I doing right by my son in our outdoor classroom? So I reached out to an expert for guidance.
“The brain, like other body parts, needs exercise to stay healthy,” says Tracy Inman, associate director of the Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University. “For our cardiac health, we know it’s important to do aerobic exercise, complete with sweating, huffing, and puffing. Athletic sweat looks very different from academic sweat. The gifted brain thrives on novelty and complexity. So your son’s endless questions strengthen his brain. He’s connecting that new information you provide to what he already knows, understands, or is able to do. The more complex the information, the more his brain works.”
Apparently, we’re doing something right: we try our best to answer all of his queries, and he knows that no topic is off-limits. That has made for some uncomfortable moments, such as when I had to explain why the internet thinks 420 and 69 memes are so hilarious. (The first one was easy to decode; the latter required mild obfuscation.) Or: “Why are golden retrievers such bad dogs?” which he asked within earshot of people walking with two of them (without a leash, of course).
There are also the more serious questions, though, the things we have to talk about to make sense of what’s happening in the world. Those have spurred discussions about issues like racial inequality and gender identity that might never have taken place while stealing moments between after-school activities and work deadlines in a pre-COVID world. I’m thankful that we’ve had the time on our hikes to talk through important and uncomfortable subjects without the interruptions of daily life.
We also use the hikes to ask Henry questions. “Listening is a given, but asking him questions is just as important,” says Inman. “Questions prove you are interested in what he is saying and serve as a way for him to dig a bit deeper.”
So even though I don’t understand most of the details he offers up in a half-hour description of how he would design his perfect video game or the layout for his proposed 100,000-square foot townhome, we ask for more information about it. An added bonus: it’s a welcome distraction when the hike starts to get difficult.
Our long-winded walking-and-talking sessions also address the socialization challenge the pandemic continues to present, according to Inman. This surprised me. It’s been eight months since my son’s been around kids his age, and while I like to think that we’re pretty cool parents (I mean, his grandparents would’ve never let him watch Superbad), I know we can get boring. On our hikes, however, he’s getting to spend time with what Inman refers to as his “idea-mates,” helping to satisfy his curiosity. Each conversation promotes his intellectual and emotional development.
While marathon conversations can be as exhausting as a slog up a mountain, they’ve also been a learning experience for us. No adventure you’ll read about on this site is as nerve-racking as taking care of a kid, but each trip is like a progress report, some assurance that we’re not raising a future junk-bond trader or an internet troll.
Most meaningful of all is that this is time we spend together. His teenage years are just over the horizon; it won’t be long until he’ll need and want to do other things besides hiking with his parents. I’ll miss every long minute of these conversations when that time comes. And as much it tests our endurance, at this point, I’m afraid nature will sound lonely without his nonstop chatter.