5 Myths of Outdoor Parenting

You may have noticed something about this website over the course of the past year: a lack of articles. And you wouldn’t be wrong. I didn’t intend to, but I took a long hiatus with the odd exception. Why?

I think the lack of writing can be attributed to two main things:

a. I was no longer comfortable writing or blogging about my daughter in so much detail. I’m concerned that at some point these entries will affect her socially or emotionally, and I didn’t like the fact that she doesn’t have much of a say in what gets published. I’ve been trying to figure out my next steps around this!

A short hike to Silverton Falls in Banff National Park. These hikes, even at under 2km, often involve a fair amount of reward and incentive, but we're getting there! Photo by Paul Zizka.
A short hike to Silverton Falls in Banff National Park. These hikes, even at under 2km, often involve a fair amount of reward and incentive, but we’re getting there! Photo by Paul Zizka.

b. (And this is primarily what the rest of this post is about…) I needed to take a step back and gain some insight into the general themes of my previous entries on this website, as well as my unpublished thoughts. My daughter is 3.5 years-old now, and if there is something I have learned over the course of these young years of parenting, it’s that much of it isn’t what it seems at first glance. The reality is that much of what we aspire to be as “outdoorsy parents” (or even just parents) is based on myths and ideals that we shouldn’t get so caught up in.

The funny thing with myths is that there is usually some element of truth to them. But mostly they take us down that dangerous hole of comparison. It has been a process for me to realize that there were things I was aspiring to that simply weren’t real to begin with.

5 Myths of Outdoor Parenting

Allow me to outline some of the myths I got sucked into believing (and what I’ve decided to do instead!):

1. “Kids are so adaptable. They’ll fit into your lifestyle if you start from an early age.”

Sort of. Let’s keep in mind that some kids are more adaptable than others, and personality makes a huge difference in this equation (ie. a huge component depends on what kind of kid you’re raising!). Some kids are more sensitive to cold, constraints, changing environments, motion, bright lights, etc. A lot of outdoor or adventurous parenting involves any combination of these things. I’m stoked for you if your kid is the easy-going type whose always up for whatever adventure you’ve got planned, but coming from “the other side” I can confidently say, this is not something that we can 100% expect.

Instead: Plan your adventures and use each new situation as a chance to get to know your child better. From there, work with their needs and plan accordingly (while gently pushing him or her into new experiences!). 

Morning in the tent on our third (I'll repeat THIRD) time camping in three years. We're all a bit sleep deprived here after being up for four hours in the night, but we made it through, right? Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
Morning in the tent on our third (I’ll repeat THIRD) time camping in three years. We’re all a bit sleep deprived here after being up for four hours in the night, but we made it through, right? Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

2. “I see others doing it, so we should be able to.”

Not necessarily. I naively assumed that this would be the case, and that we could take our little one on some awesome adventures early on. But a few trips gone sour made us realize we were far from this goal (and we pretty much cried while we watched other families embark on the camping trips and travels we were dreaming of). I have no doubt those other families have their challenging moments. But, I wish I hadn’t held such high expectations for what we’d be able to do because it stopped being fun. Again, personalities play a big role here, as do people’s schedules, finances, and other needs. When our outdoor excursions become stressful, the experience can quickly become a negative one for everyone involved.

Instead: Embrace your own family’s adventure style. Find opportunities to teach your child what it means to have an adventurous spirit and respect for the outdoors (without too much added stress!)

Maya enjoying sunset at Beach 69 on Hawaii, the Big Island. Photo by Paul Zizka.
Maya enjoying sunset at Beach 69 on Hawaii, the Big Island. This was one of the biggest adjustments we made over the years: our travel style. We learned the hard way that we need to stay in the same place for a few weeks, and it goes (mostly) wonderfully! Photo by Paul Zizka.

3. “A balance bike is the best way to get a kid biking.”

Here’s a more specific myth, and I’m gonna bust it. Balance bikes certainly work for some (most?) kids. However, I swear, I had my kid trying a balance bike for two full summer seasons and it never came. We tried to adjust the seat and the handlebars multiple times, tried taking her out with other kids who were riding balance bikes, tried putting it away for weeks at a time, tried three or four brands. Finally, just in the past two weeks, I abandoned it and bought my kid a small bike with training wheels (as one of my Instagram followers commented, “almost a crime in the Bow Valley!”). In under a week, she was riding around the block. Sure, she doesn’t balance entirely on her own yet. But the point was to get her riding a bike, and now she can. Yay.

Instead: Certain pieces of gear will come highly recommended, but don’t be afraid to follow your gut instinct if something isn’t working. A balance bike is fantastic if it ‘clicks’ for your kid, but if it doesn’t, teaching them the way you were taught might just be the best way. 

Finally, success with a bike and training wheels! Why didn't I ditch the balance bike earlier!? Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
Finally, success with a bike and training wheels! Why didn’t I ditch the balance bike earlier!? Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

4. “Everything I need to know about outdoor parenting I learned from Instagram.”

This one could also be titled, “Outdoor parenting makes you look cool.” Getting cheeky here, I know, and Instagram is only one social media feed in the mix. But, there’s a general trend on this platform that I think glamorizes outdoor parenting in an unhealthy way (and I’m entirely guilty of proliferating that trend). The main problems here are that we’re relying on a small caption for the backstory, and photos are highly curated. Parents are choosing the best, cutest, or most impressive moments to post. Savvy outdoor brands are catching on to the trends and have some money to make off this budding industry, so we’re starting to see this ‘idealized’ version of outdoor parenting in marketing, too.

Instead: Have fun on those feeds, but know there is usually more to it (for all you know, the experience may have been riddled with tears, tantrums and/or negotiations!). Don’t let the images on social media set your standards because they don’t tell the whole story.

5 Myths of Outdoor Parenting, and how to approach things instead. Photo by Paul Zizka.
Remember to ‘check in’ with yourself when you’re browsing through images on social media. They only tell a small part of the story. Photo taken at Mirror Lake, Banff National Park. Photo by Paul Zizka.

5. “You’re not an ‘outdoor parent’ unless you’re doing cool stuff with your kids.”

That’s exactly what I thought when I started this website project, having read books by people who did epic hikes with their kids, camped in crazy places, and traveled the world with a baby. But after almost four years of running AdventurousParents.com, I have come to learn that the only goals in all this are to teach our kids to love playing outside and to embrace a spirit of adventure. Let’s go back to the basics, shall we? The reality is that a truly outdoorsy lifestyle requires time and money, and not all families have those things. I still hope to spend time camping, hiking, skiing and travelling as a family, and I think those things will come as my daughter grows older. But, I’m also in a position to send a message out to parents around the world, and the glamorized version of outdoorsy or adventurous parenting (described in #4) is not what I want to convey.

Instead: Outdoor parenting is encouraging unstructured, outdoor play for children on a daily basis. Pure and simple.

Our hiking 'adventures' usually involve small stuffed animals and toys hidden along the way for Maya to find. It works wonders. Photo from the Silverton Trail, Banff National Park, by Paul Zizka.
Our hiking ‘adventures’ usually involve small stuffed animals and toys hidden along the way for Maya to find. It works wonders. Photo from the Silverton Trail, Banff National Park, by Paul Zizka.

As always, I welcome your comments below. Did you get sucked into any of these myths? What would you add to the list?

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

39 thoughts

  1. So much “good old commonsense ” was /is my first reaction to reading this ! In making observations of the points raised so many clichés sprung to mind , ” it’s not rocket science ” or ” one size doesn’t fit all ” or ” at the end of the day ” but you know what they all apply ! My mum used to tell my brother and I to go and play in the garden , on our own , with no supervision ! We survived. Time is the biggest problem with parenting. If you can manage Time a healthy, happy family should follow. Our boys are now young men, best wishes to all the young families out there .

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Robert! It’s a funny thing, though. Living in the Bow Valley I find there is extra pressure (often self-imposed!) to prove that you haven’t given up on pursuing your own outdoor passions when you become a parent. My post, I think, has less to do with the results of outdoor parenting and more about the pressure to perform and keep up. It’s easy to become a bit blind to how ridiculous it all is, when the most important thing is to just get those kids out the door. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I absolutely love your thoughts and thank you for the time you took to write and share.
    Every child is different, every adventure taken can change quickly, and every photo has a back story.
    We parents, like our young children are on a journey and must savor all the little moments.
    This summer we learned our toddler daughter doesn’t sleep well in other places unlike the year before. It was very challenging as we were all exhausted by the lack of sleep on summer trip.
    When my husband got a few more hours of shut-eye and then had more energy than me, I asked that he drop me off at a winery we drove by so I could just a few minutes by myself. He said for me to take my time and contended with our rambunctious kiddo. The lovely lady behind the tasting counter shared her wisdom. “You’re on a ‘micro-vacation.’ These years go fast, even when some afternoons can drag on. Soon you’ll be back hiking and biking up those hills, and with your daughter racing you, but for now enjoy this moment for yourself, and the simple pleasures with your daughter on the parenting journey.”
    And she was right! It put wind in my sails. Like your article and previous posts, the advice is helpful ( well, for our family.)
    Picking up leaves, looking for the moon, throwing rocks in the river, enjoying the seasons is all we need to do right now.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Heather! It’s a tough pill to swallow at times, but ultimately this is what we signed up for when we embarked on this journey we call parenting!

      One thing I appreciated about what you said was how you asked your husband to drop you off at the winery so that you could take a break. I am so bad at this! There have been so many times I have struggled through extreme tiredness or lack of energy and I should have reached out for help. I’ll have to be better at that moving forward.

      Thanks again for sharing your wisdom!

  3. Great article. My husband and I really wanted to go camping with our son. He’s just turned two and we still haven’t even tried one night away as he isn’t a great sleeper and I just can’t face a sleepless night in a tent or driving home at 3am.
    I’m more at peace with it now and we’ll go once we think he (and us) are ready. I’m ok if my ‘hike’ for the day is to the highway to ‘see the trucks’ and his discovering nature is in the back yard.

  4. Great Article! I love EVERY SINGLE POINT! I have a hard time because we do lots of stuff with our kids in hopes to inspire others to get outside, explore and be active with their kids. But what I don’t want is for families to think that to give their child the outdoor experience means that they have to do epic big adventures. I am not sure I always get that across.

    1. Thanks for commenting! My hope was that people would feel inspired to bring ‘outdoor parenting’ back to its bare bones. I love reading about the adventures others are taking! But parents need to take things with a ‘grain of salt’ in terms of what will work for their child (especially new parents :)).

  5. Love this article! Have been following you since I found your piece on taking your daughter camping for the first time. We camp, hike, paddle and travel and all of your experiences have helped in our decision making when we plan our next adventure with our son, now 2.5yrs.

    We approach things on a risk management scale as his personality evolves. We still do most of the things we want although we do them differently than we would have before he came along. From portage distances, water levels, hotel/flat rentals and sight seeing… everything boils down to ‘it depends’. We have also learned to have back up plans, I think we know where every playground in Malta is now so he could burn off some energy LOL.

    As for anything else to include, I would appreciate reading about your decision making process when you choose an activity for your family, be it a hike or travel. What sort of things do you consider and plan for that are different now that your daughter is coming with you? Perhaps hard to write about without including her personality and respecting her online presence, but perhaps stripped of personal and more practical. As you see her develop, what sort of activities do you think you can manage as a family as you all grow together?

    Please keep writing, I love following you!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Laurel! And I really appreciate you providing some ideas for articles! I can totally do one on the decision making process. The next post will certainly be more “positive.” Lately we have been venturing into indoor rock climbing and she LOVES it!

    2. I love the ‘risk management’ and the ‘it depends.’ So smart. Yes, it would be great to hear what some benchmarks are when thinking about an outdoor adventure or when amongst the chaos.

  6. I love love this. My 2.5 year old has autism and although we do get outside everyday we have had to make our adventures short because outside too long triggers meltdowns the rest of the day. It can be very hard to watch the crazy cool mountain hikes and camping adventures but the reality is I am a single mother to a special needs toddler, a one year old so although we get out and explore daily I’m certainly not the adventure parent I always thought I’d be.

    Also we have been trying the dang balance bike for 2 years too. He likes to fix it with his tools??? Apparently he thinks it is broken. Maybe I should get him a traditional bike.

    1. Hi Kelsey! Thanks for sharing – sounds like you have your arms very full and that you are adapting your adventures. It’s tough to have that ‘reality’ check, isn’t it? And yes, try a bike with training wheels! We ended up strapping M’s feet to the pedals for a few tries so that she could learn the motion and that really helped her!

      1. Ohhhh that is a great idea ! With his motor planning struggles taping his feet to the pedals would really help I’m sure !

  7. Great piece Meghan,
    Yep, our children are strong individuals from the start and our challenge to is to reveal, nurture and love them for who they are, with a little guidance slipped in. A connection to the natural world for young children can happen with a dandelion, a leaf, snow falling. And an adventurous spirit grows with time and positive experiences.
    Photos can touch a surface of what may be happening. They’re wonderful to capture moments, whether joyous, thoughtful, sad etc.
    Keep up the good work Meghan – Mom.

  8. I’m not going to lie, one of my favorite memories with my son, was taking him out on a 5-hour, 10-mile, epic backcountry nordic skiing adventure. I was with two of my best girlfriends and we had to lift his sled over downed trees and two of us pushed, while the other person pulled the sled up some of the steeper sections. It is a memory that I look forward to sharing with him when he’s older.

    But sometimes, it’s an adventure just to get out to the park (literally across the street) or walking home from the sitter’s house around the block. More than once, I’ve gotten to a trailhead only to turn around and load back into the truck after a 1/8 mile “hike”.

    Having a kid is humbling. Trying to take them on outdoor adventures is even more so. As parents, we’re the leaders, but we’re not really in charge. I think it’s such an important lesson for us as parents and for our children. Thanks for sharing your story and starting this conversation.

  9. “Family adventure style” really resonates with me. My husband is not outdoorsy and had very few positive outdoor experiences growing up. We joke but it’s true: his idea of camping is sleeping with a window open in a luxury hotel. I’m not hardcore outdoorsy but I enjoy being out and trying new adventures. Now that we’re parents, we strive to find middle ground with our twins, even if it means that I’m often the one to go solo with them to the lake, river, hikes, or even just goofing around at our community mud kitchen. I’m cool with it because I recognize that it’s my priority and not his, and my husband has a good sense of cultural adventure, which is important to both of us too.

  10. Great article!

    On the ‘Everything I learned from Instagram….’ theme, I’d love to see you and Paul do a shoot/piece on what it actually takes to get the ‘perfect family adventure’ pic! I feel like you guys are a great pair/family to help deconstruct some of the myths around that.

  11. It’s nice to see the other side of the marketing ploys were all used too. Even adventuring yourself can end up negatively and adding a kid into the mixture can make it that much more difficult. My wife and I have come to certain conclusions about children within our “adventure lifestyle” and it really is nice to have a sense of what can go into making the journey enjoyable for everyone involved. Maybe one day this article will help inspire us to take the next step in our lives. Thanks Meghan.

  12. Thanks for the honesty. The perfectly curated adventure blogs/insta/etc can be frustrating even for those of us with kids who love nothing more than being outdoors. I have an almost 2 year old and he is adventurous and easy going. We’ve even taken some pretty epic trips abroad and in the backwoods with him. However, our best times and what he seems to truly love most is just as you mentioned, unstructured time outdoors every single day. This was our family resolution for 2016 and it has been great for all of us. Low expectations, just simply get outside everyday. I do share instagram pictures at #milesoutside2016 but they aren’t all smiles and sunshine!

    1. What a great family goal, Sarah! It’s so simple, and yet we can easily lose sight of what’s most important in our fostering of kids’ love for the outdoors. I’ll have to check out your Insta feed!

  13. I only just recently came across this article and read it right now. My experiences where almost in every point the complete opposite of yours, but that’s exactly what I make out of your stories: Don’t stick to your expectations and preconceptions for too long, just let it happen, embrace the individuality of your kids and try to make it fun for everybody. Perhaps we’re not as outdorsy as you are, but it’s often Matilde (the small one is too young to articulate things like that) who asks: when are we going on another Adventure, when are we going to Canada again, can we fly with a helicopter, can we sleep in a tent …. Maybe we should put her with Maya together for some time, I’m wondering with which kind of ideas they come up with together 🙂

    1. That’s exactly it, Jan! All kids are different! In the end, I felt I wrote this post for the parents who could relate directly to what we’ve been going through, and to those who have had the opposing experience. I think it creates greater understanding both ways! How awesome is it that your little one asks for adventure! I love it! 🙂

  14. Nice article, totally agree. I took three months off my partner’s maternity leave with our first child and, living in the mountains, was desperately trying to champion #boulderingwithababy. It worked a treat before she was crawling but is currently impossible with her as a toddler. For me, now, the important thing is not to get hung up on the idea that we can’t do the glamorous stuff as much any more and to embrace the simple stuff too. Instead of being miserable that I can’t climb and we can’t be out doing cool stuff, I try and make the boring stuff enjoyable too; spinning her in the trolley in the supermarket, giving her the shopping to carry (like a newspaper). It’s so easy to get obsessed with the idea of trying to be cool that when we’re not, it can get you down. Reading your blog certainly helps to stay inspired!

    1. Thanks for commenting! It’s a refreshing conversation, talking about the realities. It was helpful for me to learn that other parents struggled to keep doing some of the things they loved, whether their kids just weren’t having it, or for some other reason. Life is too short to waste it resenting what we can’t do. I wish I had learned that earlier, but now with my second child I can apply the lessons. 🙂

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