One Saturday morning, the summer before last, I proposed taking a hike to our kids, Esme, who was seven at the time, and Roman, who was four. We were at my mom’s on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where she lives year-round, and the “hike” was actually a mile long walk to a creek where it’s nice to take off your shoes and walk barefoot in the cold water. After various threats and bribes, the kids finally agreed to go and then complained all the way there. I called upon my supermom patience, cajoling them to go a bit further, telling them how great they were doing, but inside my thoughts were plumbing darker channels: Was it so much to expect that we could take a peaceful walk in the woods on a Saturday morning? Did other people’s kids give them such a hard time? What were my husband and I doing wrong?
A few days earlier, I’d read a parenting article in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler, who, his bio noted, had written a book called The Secrets of Happy Families. After clicking through some links, I learned about his research into the best management practices, conflict resolution, and team building tactics used by everyone from the Navy Seals to Olympic coaches to Silicon Valley, and how he applied what he learned to his own family. They created a family mission statement, set goals and identified core values, against which they measured their progress each week during a family meeting. After assessing how they’d done, they came up with recommendations about what they could do better the following weeks with consequences and rewards for meeting or falling short of their goals.
In part to distract myself and the kids from the torture of being made to walk in the woods, I began to describe Feiler’s research and his family’s attempts to define the kind of family they wanted to be.
“A family brand identity?” my husband Nico intoned. “Blech.” (As a left-leaning academic, he has a pet peeve against the vernacular of work so frequently used with children. “Good job! I see you worked hard on that!” And the description of parents as bosses. They’re kids, not employees, for Chrissake, he’d say.)
I shot him a glance.
“I think it’s a worthwhile question. Who are the Broyard-Israels? Are we sleepy sloths who don’t like to go anywhere or do anything or ever have any adventures?”
“No!” said both kids at once. I had their attention.
“That’s right.” In fact, some of our best times as a family back in Brooklyn where we lived the rest of the year involved heading out on a Sunday to one of the five boroughs with a vague destination in mind, usually drawn by some offbeat art show or attraction, along with good ethnic food.
“We like to go on adventures,” said Roman.
“Ok. What else are we like?”
“We’re kind of cool?” Esme ventured. At seven she’d just begun to recognize the magic elixir of coolness.
“I think we’re kind of cool,” I said. “We get to travel a lot because of Daddy’s job as a professor, and that’s cool.”
“And Mommy’s been on TV because of her book.” Nico added.
“Being on TV is cool,” agreed Roman.
“We’re graceful,” supplied Esme. My mother, who is trained as a modern dancer, facilitates a dance improvisation group, whose rehearsals Esme and I had been sporadically attending that summer.
“Yup, we’re graceful and athletic. Ok, so can we think of an animal who
can be like our mascot that is adventurous, cool, graceful and athletic?”
Everyone, even Nico, began to throw out suggestions. Dog, deer, spotted owl. But dogs were too commonplace and friendly. Deer were too skittish and shy. We liked the idea of being as wise as owls, but they were up all night and not that adventurous.
“How about spotted snow leopards?” Esme said.
We all nodded thoughtfully. I didn’t know that much about snow leopards, but I liked the sound of them: sleek, strong, and brave, with the extra incongruity of being a leopard at home in the snow.
“But are you sure they’re spotted?” asked Nico.
“We can look that up later,” I said, wanting to hold on to the kids’ enthusiasm. “For now, we can just be the snow leopards.”
“The mighty mighty snow leopards,” said Roman.
We walked the rest of the way, making up chants about being the mighty mighty snow leopards, which wasn’t easy, since we ran out of rhymes with leopard after word, turd, and curd. Nevertheless the mascot idea seemed to inspire the kids to be more energetic than usual.
As we started to plan a trip around the world during Nico’s year-long sabbatical, I kept thinking about the mighty snow leopards. By that time, we’d learned they were nearly extinct, loners by nature, and weren’t found in any of the places we planned to travel. Yet, they still served as an effective rallying cry when the kids were faced with some challenging physical task, and I hoped that they’d be helpful in encouraging their hardiness during our travels. Because not only did we want, for ourselves and our children, to see more of the world, but we also wanted to provide the kids with opportunities to be challenged and grow in ways that their relatively privileged bubble in Brooklyn did not.
For my part, because I’m the sort of person who likes the kind of clear goals articulated through a good mission statement, I had three specific traits in mind that I wanted our travel to cultivate. These were compassion, curiosity and hardiness (or grit as it is often called in the copious research measuring its value in determining a child’s future success). I suspected that the first two would take care of themselves through the kids’ natural response to what we were seeing, but hardiness seemed harder to come by and felt more personally pressing to me.
My husband and I are very fortunate to enjoy a great lifestyle. His job as a professor and mine as a writer means we have more freedom and time than many working parents and are able, for example, to move every summer to my mother’s in Martha’s Vineyard where we are on the beach by three most afternoons. We have periods of intense work—usually involving a deadline—and have both achieved a fair amount of success in our respective fields, but I sometimes wondered if we used quality of life to justify taking the easy route, if we might not seem lazy by another person’s measure.
I wasn’t specifically concerned with my kids’ future success–that goal seemed too abstract and distant to me. Besides I knew plenty of people who were very successful and not that happy. But I wanted them to be willing to exert themselves over a long haul, even when something was difficult. I wanted them to keep walking even if they were tired.
We were only three weeks into our round-the-world trip when the hardiness trait was put to the test. We were in the Northern part of Ethiopia where I’d booked a few nights at Lalibela Hudad, an eco-resort on top of a mountain whose gorgeous views had caught my attention on Tripadvisor.
In arranging the booking, the owner mentioned that a minivan could only take us so far up the mountain road and we’d have to walk the last two kilometers of the way to the resort, but we could hire a mule to carry the kids if necessary.
Even if I had bothered to read the reviews on Tripadvisor—which warned about the intensity of the hike up to the Hudad–I don’t think I would have been prepared for just how difficult it was. There were parts that required scrambling on all fours up a ledge or picking your way carefully among loose rocks slippery with mud or traversing a narrow trail the far side of which dropped into a canyon hundreds of feet deep. And the thinness of the air.
The starting elevation was six thousand feet. As we climbed up another three thousand feet more, I kept losing my breath. “Careful,” I panted when one of the kids stepped close to the edge.
Esme called the first ride on the mule—claiming she was already tired when we’d barely begun. But she soon discovered that being high up on top of the animal as it stepped among the uneven rocks exaggerated the bumpiness of the terrain. It took more energy to stay upright and was far scarier than walking. After a few minutes of clinging petrified to the animal’s back, she asked to get down and Roman hopped on. Because Roman is smaller, he didn’t seem to mind the mule’s herky-jerky motions up the mountain. In fact the movement seemed to nearly rock him to sleep.
As we walked on, I braced myself for Esme’s complaining to begin.
A small entourage accompanied us: the owner of the mule, his grandson who looked to be somewhere between my kids’ ages, our guide, Workeye, who carried two of our daypacks while Nico and I took turns carrying another one, and a pair village men who balanced plastic crates of beer and soda to resupply the Hudad on their shoulders. The grandson insisted on carrying Roman’s daypack, which was stuffed with everything he’d need for the next couple of nights, and weighed nearly ten pounds.
Perhaps it was the example of this kid or Nico and my encouragement of her or her calling upon her snow leopard spirit animal, but Esme practically ran up the mountain. Every time we stopped for a rest she stood at the front of the group, tapping her feet, impatient to get going again. She lead the way, skipping across the loose rocks, picking her path assuredly through the bushes along the narrow pathways. “Slow down,” I called breathlessly. “Don’t get too far ahead of us.”
I could see that Esme had latched onto the idea that she had a natural talent for hiking and had located that euphoric feeling of doing something hard well. Watching her charge forward filled with confidence and energy, rather than the fatigue and defeat that characterized our hike to the creek, I felt as if I was witnessing an essential part of her bloom and take seed right before my eyes. She was and would always be a natural born hiker. Yes, she has strong legs and good lungs, but mostly she decided that this was who she was, something that was distinct about Esme, and that had made it possible for her to keep pushing herself forward.
We reached the top. On every side of us, the mountains and valley spread out in varying shades of green, played upon by the sun and shadows of the clouds. I nestled my face slick with sweat into Esme’s dry one. “I am so proud of you,” I whispered fiercely. She smiled up at me. A reflexive humility made her try to check the surge of pride lighting up her face. Then she gave over to it, smiling the smile of someone who felt as if she stood at the top of the world.