The balance between caretaker and guide

Two weeks ago I decided to surprise my older son by asking him if he’d like to join me for a run.

We had a few times in the past where I’d run and he’d cycle along. Following my recent adventure on Ultra Trail Lamer Winkel (“König vom Bayerwald”) with a long distance on the trail, I had decided to have a more relaxed June in terms of the mileage I’d put on my legs. So when my son asked if he could join in the bike, I told him straight “you can run if you like”.

It was one of those moments where the child in front of you draws a wide smile, eye pupils expand and you feel the bright spark which lights up his mind in that exact moment. That’s what happiness looks like.

– “You mean running?”

– “Absolutely!”

Düsseldorf provides a nice short route around the river where you can easily run a path without necessarily having to return the same way. That’s perfect as a way to stay below 4-5k distance and have a landscape that doesn’t become boring after the half-way point. Surprisingly enough we did 6 Kms altogether, with 1 stop only at Km 5 for having water in a fountain shortly before getting back home. I was positively impressed as my son is aged 6 at the moment.

While we haven’t recorded the experience in any digital format, we had an intimate father-son practice for an hour or so, which pleased us both. With that in mind I invited him again the weekend next for a run in the local forest and try out trail running. The response? “Yes daddy, I’ll wake up silently and we get going on sun rising”. Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it myself.

And so we got set on Sunday early morning and made our way to the Grafenberger Wald. I was careful this time to take water and energy bars, which banana-chocolate flavour made the delight of the younger one somewhere along the route. We spent 2 hours in the forest and recorded 10 Kms together. We had soooooo much fun together.

My son fell at around Km 8 while chasing a couple running ahead of us. He was so excited on the prospect of catching them up that, while running fast, he tripped and got himself bruised on arms and knee. Oh… the irony of buying a first aid kit for all my adventures and ending up using it first time in such a situation! Putting aside such setback, he was super proud of making such a large distance and had eyes all shining with all the fun we had in the forest: running, jumping, sharing, hiking, laughing, …

Father and sonThe experience kept me wondering how I performed as a parent…

One fundamental part of being a father is to act as a caretaker, a protector, a shield, the one caring for your children well being. From that viewpoint I kept judging myself if I should have stopped him sooner, if he tripped because he was tired and which impact would running so long have on his health.

Another fundamental part of it is to act as a guide, a teacher, a mentor, the one providing the motivation for your children to follow their dreams, to seek higher aspirations and be independent enough to take informed decisions on their own.

In the January 2015 issue of the Trail Runner magazine, contributing editor Yitka Winn had a very interesting article titled «School of Hard Rocks». She spent a long weekend with the Redden, a family with five kids aged 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 years old which venture themselves in nature as an ordinary activity, which are fond of running and whose children have become renowned for going the ultra distance. Let’s briefly say that Teagan Redden ran in 2013 her first 100K race.

«While many people gush with awe and admiration at the kids’ ultrarunning accomplishments, others take to the Internet to express their criticism. Comments have ranged from well-meaning concern for the children’s physical health to vitriolic accusations of child abuse».

As I recalled our weekend experience, I couldn’t but stop thinking that the borderline between caretaker and guide is perhaps a very thin one. While I deeply care for the comfort of my children, I strive that they can spread their wings and fly. And flying in life is showing the enthusiasm, the happiness and the easiness that my son has lived last weekend on the forest with me.

Trail running has awaken in me an intense desire of being close to nature. I’m genuinely convinced that there is a need for all of us collectively to be more connected to our natural environment and that doing so contributes in so many ways to our development as human beings. I’ve tried lately to motivate my family to have those moments more often.

Winn goes further by saying that «in a society where childhood obesity is on the rise, peer bullying wreaks havoc on self-esteem and unprecedented levels of “screen time” have replaced interactions with the literal world, maybe these kids are on to something profound». Perhaps they are indeed!

Children act on two key dimensions: play and fun.

Play is the motivation. Fun is the reward. Remove the latter and the former is gone.

Last weekend we played in the forest. And we had fun. And so the distance was the less important of things actually…. interestingly Sabrina Redden outlined this in the article as a case with her own children: «”When Tajh found out that he could have chocolate and cookies [at the aid stations] if he ran, he said, ‘I’m in! This is the best thing ever!'”». Children are so wonderfully spontaneous, aren’t they?

Life is about balance. Caretaking and guiding as a father should be seen as such: finding the right balance.

This weekend we did it again and headed out for the forest. How did it go? We stopped at Km 3 as, though he left home super excited about reliving the experience again, he came to the conclusion he was not in the mood any longer. We had an energy bar, drank some water and went back to the car. After lunch he went to bed and slept 3 hours straight.

As I recall those training days where I was not really motivated, why couldn’t children have theirs as well? Listen to your kids and feel them, in the same way you feel your body when you’re training. Find the fitting balance.

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