Walking with dinosaurs (or how the teenager views family outings)…
I have a vivid memory from my childhood. My parents, younger sister and I were on a walk. It was a pleasant stretch along an old railway line – flat and easy, with clear skies and a view framed by tall grasses that swaggered tipsily in the breeze. However, what I chiefly remember is not the scenery, pretty as it undoubtedly was, but the sight of my parents’ backs, fifty yards ahead, and the feeling of resentment and annoyance I harboured as I carefully maintained the huge gulf of distance and understanding between us… not because of any actual problem – simply because I was a newly-fledged teenager, and I really, really didn’t want to be there.
Sound familiar? Well, scoot forward thirty years or so, and the walking boot is on the other foot. I now have a teenager of my own. And as it always does (and always will), the old scene is being played out again, though my teenager would never believe that I know how she feels, still less that I understand her. She thinks I grew up in the dark ages.
When she was tiny and just toddling, going for walks with our daughter was essentially a training exercise: training her not to walk up other people’s driveways in pursuit of a cat, not to throw herself on the pavement and refuse to move when she was tired, not to cross the road without checking the traffic. At this point, walks were a) slow, b) short and c) punctuated by long pauses to observe flora and fauna, paddle in the puddles or hastily improvise a toilet facility.
Once she was completely mobile (and continent), we tried a wide variety of approaches in pursuit of our aim of bringing up a Child Who Walks. These included:
i) the animated walk (make it into a story, the sillier and the more references to cow-pats the better);
ii) the collecting walk (conkers, sticks, cones – fir cones, obviously: traffic cones are for adolescents…);
iii) the pudding walk (basically a very long discussion/distraction technique about desserts we’ve had or would like to have);
iv) the playground walk (a sleight of hand whereby the child believes the park is the point of the journey, but you are very deviously sticking a walk in front);
v) the ‘quest’ walk (‘Yes, of course there’s a shop at the top of Snowdon – shall we climb it and see?…’);
vi) the Bring a Friend walk, and its even more effective (but smellier) cousin, the Bring a Friend And Their Dog walk;
vii) finally, and most often used of all, the cake-or-ice-cream-or-cream-tea-at-the-end walk (which works for me, too).
Times change, however. We thought we were doing well, but, aged around eleven or twelve, our daughter’s interest in climbing-frames and sticks began to wane. Our encyclopaedic, empirically tested knowledge of every children’s park within a ten-mile radius was no longer needed, and with this loss went dozens of well-loved, well-trodden walks-to-playgrounds. Gradually, technology replaced activity.
Geocaching (searching for hidden ‘treasure’ using the navigation feature on her smartphone) can sometimes get her moving now, as can the suggestion that she takes her camera. But I sense that these are small battles in a war we are quietly and inexorably losing. My favourite walks these days are the Sunday morning tramps my husband and I take whilst our daughter is having the famous teenage lie-in. We often get back, red-cheeked and with the achy knees of the newly middle-aged, to find that she is still horizontal and will be having breakfast at the same time that we are craving lunch.
But let’s put this into perspective. That teenager I described at the start – me – grew up, and now likes nothing more than walking. Won’t our daughter be the same? In retrospect, I wasn’t rejecting the walking per se: it was my parents that I was pushing away. And that’s normal, and natural, and quite as it should be.
So maybe I shouldn’t be upset that my daughter doesn’t want to come out with us any more. Maybe, in the long walk that is parenthood, I should be taking the long view: seeing this stage as part of the landscape rather than focusing in on the foreground of the present.
Let’s stop for a while, then, and enjoy that view… Anyone for a cream tea?