Everywhere I looked, I saw white. Wet, heavy flakes of snow obscured the trail, but ahead of me, my six kids continued forward, plowing through waist-high drifts. It was beautiful, and cold, and terrifying.
When my wife, Kami, and I decided to take our six kids on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), plenty of people had opinions—many of them critical. They called us irresponsible. Reckless. Bad parents.
There’s a prevailing belief today that a parent’s primary duty is to provide safety. But I believe that sheltering our children comes at the expense of many of our larger goals as parents, like building relationships, fostering a sense of adventure, and encouraging growth. In our pursuit of safety, we intend to protect our children from harm, but by depriving them of valuable life experiences, we actually cause them irreparable damage in the long run.
Hiking through a blizzard in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was not safe, but that day was life-altering, for me and my kids. It proved to me what I’d suspected all along: if we truly want what’s best for our children, we must rethink our approach to safety.
Is the Safest Option the Best Option?
With the snow still coming down and my fingers and toes growing numb, I thought back to that morning, when we’d all been relatively warm inside one of the designated shelters along the AT.
Upon waking to an eight-inch blanket of white, we were faced with a big decision: Do we stay in the shelter and wait out the blizzard, or do we push forward?
The risks of hiking into the storm were obvious. What if we got lost and were forced to camp out in the elements? What if we suffered frostbite or hypothermia?
The other hikers in the shelter urged us to stay. “It’s safer,” explained one hiker who was bundled in a thick coat and wrapped in his sleeping bag, clearly planning to wait it out himself.
The decision was easy to them: safest option = best option.
For parents in particular, safety has become the primary metric for decision-making, and what constitutes “safety” has expanded greatly over the years. In the past, safety meant preventing serious bodily harm. Now, you’re seen as an irresponsible parent if your child experiences any sort of pain that is viewed as preventable.
But if the determining factor in your decisions is “What’s the safest option?” you will miss out on so much of life. Staying in the shelter wasn’t actually our safest option. The safest option would have been for us to never leave home in the first place. So according to popular parenting philosophy, the “best”option would have been to deprive our children of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When we prioritize safety above all else, we limit our children. We prevent them from growing and having the experiences that develop important traits, like grit, perseverance, adaptability, and courage.
And for what? Peace of mind? Lowered chance of something going wrong? Hiking, even in snow, isn’t even that dangerous! You know what is dangerous? Heart disease. It’s the number one killer in America. Walking daily (which is all hiking really is) is thus one of the healthiest, safest things you could do, because it reduces risk of heart disease.
Ultimately, we must remember that parenting is a long-term pursuit. Our goal is for our children to have happy, fulfilling lives. When we put safety and comfort first, we might make things better in the short term, but we’re not setting our children up for success in the long-term. So no, the safest option is not always the best option.
What If We Put Safety Second, Not First?
Obviously, safety is important. I am by no means advising that you forego seatbelts or encourage your children to play with venomous snakes. You must think about safety, but you should think about it second, not first.
Instead of looking at safety as the goal, look at it as a tool. You would never start a home improvement project by saying, “I’m going to use a hammer. Now what should I use it for?” You start by asking, “What do I want to do?” Maybe you decide you want to renovate your kitchen. Then you can ask, “What tools do I need?” A hammer might be one of those tools, but if you start with the hammer alone, you’d never be able to complete the project.
So instead of asking, “What’s the safest option?” ask “What do we want to do?”
Then ask, “How do we do this in the safest way possible?”
That’s what we did when faced with the blizzard. We asked ourselves, “Do we want to stay here, getting colder and losing morale with every passing hour, or do we want to push forward?”
If we continued hiking, we had the promise of a warm hotel, as my parents were scheduled to pick us up at the Newfound Gap, which is the first and only major road crossing on the AT in the Smokies. With hot showers and warm beds in mind, we decided as a family that we wanted to continue hiking.
So then we had to figure out how to do it in the safest way possible. First, it’s important to know that, before ever attempting the AT, my family had hiked hundreds of miles together. We’d cut our teeth in the snowy mountains of the Pacific Northwest, so we had valuable experience and skills that would help us to hike safely.
We knew the biggest danger we’d face was the cold, so we all suited up in our warmest gear and waterproof rain gear. We also had hand warmers for our younger kids, as well as trekking poles for the kids that wanted them. As an additional precaution, we wrapped our two-year-old Rainier in a down blanket for extra warmth. Then we set off into the snow, taking care to stay close to one another because of the reduced visibility.
Arguably, we were teaching our kids far more about safety than we would have by simply staying home. With a “safety first” mindset, you teach your kids to do what they’re told and not take risks. With “safety second,” you teach them how to assess and mitigate risks for themselves.
The Payoff of Safety Second
I’m not going to lie and say it was easy to hike through that blizzard. The truth is that it was a risk, albeit a calculated one.
But I wouldn’t change a thing. That day, as we hiked 12.5 miles in the worst conditions we’d yet faced, my kids became my heroes. I was completely blown away by their strength and resolve. Despite the snow—or more accurately, because of it—they had incredible attitudes. Most days on the trail, tears of frustration or exhaustion were normal, but not that day. Everyone was 100 percent motivated, and we came together as a family and as a team.
Later, we later heard that some people in the shelters suffered hypothermia and frostbite, and a couple needed to be rescued by park rangers in helicopters. If we’d stayed, that could have been us.
In addition to bringing us closer as a family, hiking through that blizzard taught my kids that they are capable of hard, extraordinary things. By putting safety second, I was able to give them the greatest possible gifts: the experience of a lifetime, and confidence in themselves. If you ask them, every minute of cold misery was worth it.
For more advice on rethinking safety, you can find 2,000 Miles Together on Amazon.