Kids and the Outdoors: Teach ‘em Early and Take ‘em Often

Jim and children

I’ve made enough parenting mistakes to last two lifetimes and I like to remind my kids that I’m not done yet. But one thing I’m pretty sure I did right was to take them to the woods and out on the water as soon and as often as I could.

That might seem like a no-brainer, especially since I’m from Blountstown. But we were living in Tallahassee when our kids were born and I wanted to make sure they learned to appreciate the outdoors the same way I did – as a place to relax and feel at home. I didn’t want them to be scared of the woods and I didn’t want them to feel like visitors in a museum when they were there.

My brother, Steve, with his granddaughter, Stevie Joy, admiring the catch of the day.

My brother, Steve, with his granddaughter, Stevie Joy, admiring the catch of the day.

That’s because I knew folks like that.

When I was growing up, I just took it for granted that everyone hunted and fished and camped out. I found out otherwise when I saw a kid at camp get caught up in a wait-a-minute vine, snagged by thorns in about a dozen places. Rather than patiently untangling himself (while cussing quietly) – or plowing on through (while cussing loudly) – he just stood there. Crying. Utterly defeated. By a plant.

I felt bad for him because I’m sure he was humiliated. As I looked back on it, though, it made me realize that I never wanted that to be my kid.  So, I dragged them sometimes kicking and screaming out on the boat, on the trail or to the camp every chance I got.

All of them spent nights in a tent before they were old enough to walk or talk. And each one of them caught fish before they could hold the pole by themselves. They got cold, hot, tired and filthy – but they also got used to it. And no matter how much they complained at times, they always got over it.

Ella running around the campfire while Jimmy and cousin Jeff (in the cap) play behind her.

Ella running around the campfire while Jimmy and cousin Jeff (in the cap) play behind her.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t nearly as patient as I should have been. There were lots of times when I couldn’t wait to get home and I’m sure many more when they felt the same way. But all of us learned lessons we would have missed indoors.

Did it pay off?

The oldest, Mary Grace, actually insisted on filleting fish at age 7 because she “wanted to know what they looked like inside.” She’s now majoring in environmental management at UWF. MG is a bit of a hippie who likes to grow her own food and paddle around in her kayak, but she’ll sometimes set aside her vegan diet for fresh fish or venison.

Ella has competed in the Pensacola Junior Angler a couple of times and actually placed second once. She’s a freshman at FSU and just as comfortable in the woods as she was on her high school homecoming court.

My youngest, Jimmy, killed his first two deer at age 12. Then he picked up a guitar at 13 and hasn’t put it down since. But occasionally I can still get him to go shoot some squirrels with me.

The important thing is that all of them have a healthy respect for nature and feel at ease and at home in the woods. I believe they also understand more about life and living than kids who only saw the outdoors through a television screen. And they’re all tougher and more confident for having learned to rough it at an early age.

This redfish only ate other fish who only ate vegetables.

Mary Grace with her redfish. He only ate other fish who only ate vegetables.

Nowadays, we hear a lot of folks complaining about “these kids today” and how they play too many video games, lack respect and discipline, and generally lead more sedentary lives than their parents or grandparents did.

All that may be true, but I don’t blame the children.  I blame the adults in their lives for not taking them camping, showing them how to fish or teaching them to hunt their own food. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor, theirs are children who are truly deprived.

As I said, I made a lot of mistakes in raising my children, but introducing them to nature certainly wasn’t one of them.

This is the face of a prom queen. (The one on the left).

This is the face of a prom queen. (The one on the left).

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