My four-year-old collapsed in a field of daisies, his face contorted in anger: “This is the WORST DAY EVER!” His baby brother clutched my leg, howling, “Big bear ding-dong! Big bear ding-dong!”
Songbirds scattered from the trees around us.
I stood in the middle of the trail, toddler attached to one leg, four-year-old prone in the field beside me. The kids’ wails rose into the cloudless sky. We were in a wilderness paradise full of meandering paths, tree swings, stick forts, and an off-the-grid school bus I had rented for our weekend camping trip. On my own. And six months pregnant besides.
There was no one for miles to witness this parenting fail.
When Matt went off on his annual guys-only canoe trip, I decided to take the kids on a camping trip of our own. I had everything figured out. The best food and plenty of it. The right gear but nothing complicated. I even prepared the kids for the tricky parts of our stay, like how our host asked us not to push the buttons or play with the steering wheel inside the bus. Gus and Henry had no problems with that.
I was Super Mom, I told myself, hoisting the cooler above my third-trimester belly and lugging it up to the bus.
What I couldn’t control, however, were the kids’ emotions. Including how many they had. Or how loud they were.
Who could have predicted that the moment we stepped into the woods, the toddler would become terrified that a big bear was coming to ring our doorbell? Or that the four-year-old would have an endless (it seemed) case of the blahs?
Not me, obviously.
I was helpless in every sense of the word.
I had snacks and water in my backpack, but the kids weren’t hungry or thirsty.
A nap? Who was I kidding? Who would fall asleep in the middle of a hiking trail?
Bribery? I suspected not even a bucket of ice cream would please the four-year-old in that moment. I certainly had nothing comparable in my pack.
Distraction? Can’t really distract a toddler from his fear of the woods… when you’re in the middle of the woods.
And while we parent without threats or punishment (to the best of our fallible ability), neither would have helped the situation I was in.
It no longer was about what would “work.”
It had to be about what they needed.
Somewhere on that trail, in the middle of the woods, with no one watching, I began to parent the way I had been striving to for months. I didn’t shush their voices because there was no one to hear them yelling. I didn’t rush them because there was nowhere we needed to go. I didn’t bribe, distract, or manipulate them because… honestly, at the end of it all, we’d still be out in the middle of the woods, and it made a lot more sense to help them rather than cajole their problems away.
I realized that I was a better parent when no one was watching.
And that I spend too much time worrying about what other people think.
Instead, I sat down on the path, held Henry, and read to Gus from My Father’s Dragon (because that’s what he asked me to do). Yes, I thought things like “we could be reading this book at home” and “is anyone going to have fun this weekend?” and “my butt is falling asleep,” but I kept those thoughts to myself.
After awhile, the kids started to relax.
It wasn’t long before they began to have a good time.
I did, too.