Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Parenting in the Parks: Exploring the Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

 When we were planning our itinerary for our South Dakota adventures I had chosen the Wind Cave merely because it was close by Mount Rushmore and the Badlands and because it was in my “Secrets of National Parks” book. It sounded like a good opportunity - an underground cave underneath the earth and opportunities to roam the prairie and mountains above the cave. Not to mention chances to stop and watch the prairie dogs do their thing. 

Although nothing compares to the Badlands themselves, the Wind Caves are a great park. We took the hour long tour of inside the caverns and marveled at the creation of the cave. Being from Virginia we have gone into numerous caves as a family, but none with such intricate boxwork markings along the walls. The 54 degrees under the earth was a relief from what we felt above us and the ranger seemed to have the perfect balance of giving adults interesting facts and information while also keeping the children amused. To be fair, our children were participating in the Bingo Board at this point, so part of our enjoyment may have been our children’s lovely behavior. It is always a relief when it is not YOUR child who is fighting over who gets to push the button.

We came out of the cave, ate our packed lunches at a table in the shade, and gave the girls time to finish up their junior ranger books. Reading the room, we decided to not repeat our eventful hike of the day before and instead drive to Hot Springs, South Dakota to see the Mammoth Museum before driving back through the Wind Cave to complete the parents’ desired hike. What can I say? We do learn from our mistakes.

Although at each stop we had a child refuse to get out of the car (we had forgotten to put refusal to leave the car on the bingo board so this did not count against them) but once we cajoled the child out everyone had fun. One of our girls is a mountain goat in human clothing and there were a few times we had to pull her off the rocks while her sister panicked that we were going to make good on our threat of just leaving the mountain goat in her natural habitat. Still, trying to get a child off a hike is better than trying to force a child to do a hike. At the end of the day, on our last hike at .... Ridge, the highest point in the Wind Cave, we took in the view and then watched our girls skip down the trail together as though they were at Disney.

Monday, August 9, 2021

The Forced March (Hike) - Parenting in the Parks Post 4

After dragging our children through Mount Rushmore, stuffing them with the only gluten-free options we could find, and forcing them to talk to a park ranger to receive their junior ranger badges, my husband and I decided we could not end the day there. We had heard there was a hiking trail. We love hiking! It is 111 degrees outside! Our kids are already miserable! It is the perfect opportunity to explore the great outdoors! Isn’t that why we brought the whole family to South Dakota anyway?

The entrance to the Blackberry Trail at Mount Rushmore is not clearly marked and we spent most of our time wandering back and forth across the parking lot asking different park rangers to point us in the right direction. This of course only primed our children for ultimate whining as there really is nothing that says family fun more than walking across a large, steaming hot and crowded public parking lot when you are already tired. We prevailed though, and eventually found the trail head. 

The seven year old was done. “NO”

We ignored her.

The secret to hiking with her we’ve learned is to just make it through the first mile. She complains loudly through the first mile and then cheers up and tends to have extreme amounts of energy for the rest of the hike. This hike, however, was only a total of two miles, so that meant half the hike would entail drama. 

Sometimes the seven year old can be distracted with a game of pretend. The day before while we wandered through the Badlands looking for rattlesnakes and telling the kids that this was great fun, she had decided to pretend to be Manhattan, the famous tour guide. 

“Hello everyone, my name’s Manhattan. It’s a long one so try your best to remember it. What’s my name again? That’s right! Manhattan! Everyone, fall in line behind me and I’ll take you through this lovely trail called The Badlands. Just right here over this small hill. Stay on the trail please - mommy! Is that a rattle snake?” 

“No... that’s just a plant”

“Well then, let’s not be scared of the plant everyone - but keep your eyes out for rattlesnakes and stay on the path. Just follow your trusted tour guide, Manhattan. On your left you will see the Badlands... look at those different colors of red, yellow, and brown. On your right, more Badlands.” 

Truthfully, Manhattan was a good tour guide even if she was absolutely making up everything she said. And narrating the trail was far more pleasant than whining so we were all happy when Manhattan showed up.

On our Blackberry trail hike however, Manhattan was nowhere to be found. After the seven year old made multiple attempts to turn around without us noticing or to just sit down on the ground and refuse to move, I asked where Manhattan was. 

“Oh, didn’t you hear?” my daughter said without a beat. “She died. She was leading a hike on this very trail and was so very tired. She went off to look for blackberries and fell off that rock right there. Sorry.” 

You know things are dire when imaginary characters start dying. 

Despite the death stories and the refusals to move, the Blackberry Trail was beautiful. The trail takes you on a loop behind Mount Rushmore. It was incredible that within the same park we had been surrounded by people and now, so close to where we had just been, we were alone. We did not see anyone on the entire trail but were able to marvel at the beauty of the Black Hills and see just why they had chosen that spot for Mount Rushmore. Although only a mile away from the parking lot we felt as though we were deep in the woods as we stopped to turn around.

Eventually we made it to the bottom of the trail - which we had completely in a whopping 39 minutes for the full downhill mile. We moved so slowly that my watch gave me an idle alert and told me I had been sitting too long. I took lots of pictures to amuse myself so that I would not outright lose my mind or say something so awful that I could never take it back. 

Miraculously, just like with every hike, as we began the second mile the seven year old perked up. As we turned around to go up the steep one mile hill we had just gone down she took off, practically running the entire way. We made it up the hill in significantly less time than it took us to go down. What can I say? It was a beautiful hike and completely worth it.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Parenting in the Parks - the Junior Ranger Program

The National Parks have a Junior Ranger program, which I both praise and curse them for all at once. They provide your children with a booklet and a number of pages to complete based on your child’s age. This give your child a clear focus to work through as you navigate the park. Once this is completed your child can turn the book in at a ranger station, take an oath and receive a badge. At Rushmore it gave us an excuse to sit down in the shade and to talk about something other than all the ways our children were being abused. At the Wind Cave it also gave us something to do while we waited in the line. The problem with these books is that they have excellent learning objectives in them, which means that at times it actually felt like forcing my children to sit down and do homework. And for what? A plastic badge that they will most likely lose or that they can then beg for a $40 vest to keep the badges on that they will never wear? 

We were exploring the Wind Cave prairies, admiring the view, and all I could think was “We have three more pages to do in those booklets”. Notice the we. It quickly went from “you” to “we”. Not that they give parenting badges along with the ranger badges. Come to think of it, maybe they would. Or a drink voucher to use at the nearest bar. 

As my husband waited dutifully in line at the Wind Cave we sat on a picnic bench with another family doing the same thing. The mother and I poked and proded our children to choose a page, answer the questions, think through the answers, spell words correctly, and do quick mini-lessons on how caves formed, the food chain in the prairie, and how the Lakota tribe can use every part of the buffalo. “Mommy, what do they use the bladder for?” I was so grateful to hear the other mom explain that you use the bladder to carry water - I didn’t know and there wasn’t an internet signal out there for a quick under-the-table google check. Not that cheating is OK. But, you know. It is hot outside. 

The answers to these questions can all be found in the museums and information provided by the park, but that involves carefully attending to each sign, movie, and display. At Rushmore this meant memorizing what each child’s booklet required of them, scanning the signs and displays for answers, then grabbing the child, have them look at the sign, review the information, then say “wow, I wonder if that will answer a question in your booklet.” Every time that is met with “Nah, I don’t think so.” “No, really, please, let’s look.” And then me drawing the logic between the sign and the paper. Hopefully when it is time for my children to take college entrance exams they’ll understand worksheet logic better than they do now.

Rushmore’s booklet included a crossword puzzle, which would be fun except that in order to complete a crossword puzzle correctly one must spell the words right. This led to multiple tears as we asked our children to check their spelling, before ultimately just writing the word for them because this is suppose to be a fun, family activity and it is 100 degrees outside and I just can’t anymore.

The ultimate final task of the booklets is to take them to a ranger. At Rushmore they are required to ask the ranger what they do at the park and then draw the answer. For some reason my children equated this with asking a park ranger what kind of underwear they were wearing. There were more tears as we tried to point out the friendly looking rangers standing idly by, just waiting for children to come up and talk to them. “It’s OK” we said, “You don’t have to get the badge. We were here! We saw the monument! Let’s go!” But that wasn’t OK. My girls needed the badge. And so, eventually, they worked up their nerve and received the badges. Only to repeat the same experience the next day at the Wind Cave. 

My girls are now the proud holders of two junior ranger badges. The Badlands ranger just gave me the booklets and the badges and made me promise not to give them the badges until they finished the booklets. I have a feeling I will be the proud holder of two junior ranger Badland badges because I highly suspect my children will not complete their worksheet packet now that we are ending our vacation.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Parenting in the Parks #2 - Bingo!

We left off with our last post with our family in dire survival mode at Mount Rushmore, wondering how we were going to survive even one more day at a national park... 

And so, as we sat down to eat our overly expensive park food I decided we needed a survival plan. Something novel. Something to make us laugh. Something to make us possibly survive the awfulness that this trip was becoming. 

A bingo board.

A bingo board where we could actually check off a box for each whine. 

Just listening to the whining could actually mean we were winning. Or something like that. As I listened to all the other whining children calling to their parents throughout the park I loved the idea even more. Perhaps because it became clear to me that our children’s whines didn’t necessarily mean we were bad parents (at least, if we were, we were bad parents along with every other parenting marching their child through the monument), but instead it was that we were doing our as parents and they were doing their job as kids. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t make this excruciating experience fun.

That night we sat together as a family and designed a “Forced Fun National Park Adventure 2021” bingo board. Inside each box we put in a common child whine or action or a frequent parent phrase/action. If we got bingo then my husband and I could choose the dinner location and enjoy large adult beverages. If we didn’t get bingo then our children would have won and we wouldn’t stand in their way of achieving their dreams of getting a massive ice cream treat. Everyone contributed and after a few drafts we had our board - complete with “solidarity boxes” for when we observed whining behavior from other kids. 

Please dear god of parents, let this work, I thought as I folded it into my bag. Let’s be honest, a large adult drink would only mean I’d have a massive headache the next day, making their whining on our travel day home even worse. If we “won” the bingo board there would be no real winners.

My youngest studied the board as though it held the answers to a college entrance exam. As we drove toward our third national park she announced “So after we’ve checked one box then we can do that behavior over and again, right?” Great. She found a loophole.

We pulled into the Wind Cave National Park only to see a line of disgruntled families wrapping around the visitor’s center and out into the park. My heart sank - not for the line or the possibility that we might not get tickets to tour the cave, but at the possibility of getting bingo within the first ten minutes of waiting in line. 

I want to take a moment to honor the creativity and ingenuity of parents waiting in this line. One group was letting their young children build castles out of pinecones. I’ve never seen such a large pile of pinecones but these children were sitting in front of it as though they were at the beach, creating castles Elsa would have been happy with. 

For us, the line gave us time to both work on our junior ranger packets and review the bingo board. We reviewed the difference between stating your need and whining. We don’t want you to not tell us if you are hungry or hurt - but it can be done in a regular human being voice. We practiced. And discussed. And analyzed every loophole.

 “But if I am really just hurting and whining is the only thing to make it feel better?” 

“Then that’s fine. Go for it. But then I get to mark a square.”

“But what if my sister does look at me when I don’t want her to?” 

“Can I whine if I’m bored?”

Yes, whine at all of these, but then we mark off the board.

Luckily the line was very long and we had time to analyze every situation possible. It is a good reminder that sometimes we have to spell out “If your sister is touching you then you just move away and she won’t be touching you anymore” so that screaming “she’s touching me!” isn’t the first solution that comes to mind. Sometimes our fully developed adult brains forget these small things. 

So was the bingo board actually just a cruel way to amuse myself and troll my children from my heartless parenting soul? Part of me felt like it was. I mean, normal parents don’t sit down with their kids and say “OK, tell me all the things you are going to whine about tomorrow. Let’s make a list. Oh! And make a list of all the things we might say when you do whine.” Something about that feels wrong.

And yet, by noon we had only checked off three boxes, and one of the boxes was from honestly thinking my child was whining when it turned out to be another parent’s child. Around 1pm there was a bit of a “she touched me and it hurt” moment, but just checking off one box did not ruin the board. The brilliance of the bingo board is that they can actually make a mistake - because, let’s be honest, it was a long, hot, sometimes boring day, and even as adults we were likely to whine now and then. But that doesn’t mean we need to whine all day long. The board allowed my kids to have those honest moments of traveling like a kid - and gave my husband and I something to think about instead of just rolling our eyes. Somehow it no longer felt like a big deal. We could laugh about the “she looked at me and it hurt” moment together as a family, check it off, tease the girls that we might win, and move on.

Ed Tronick found in his Still-Face experience work that “good enough parents” are only actively attuned to our children’s overtures 30% of the time. We miss their cues and have mismatches or ruptures in our relationships with them70% of the time. In fact, as Winnecott wrote, a child needs just a “good enough” parent - one that gives them that safe place to experience stress and unmet needs that the world will inevitably give them. So lets be real. Maybe 70% of our Rushmore experience was met with whining and frustration. But there were those 30% moments. The collective awe we felt as a family as we found a quiet spot to view the monument from. The family mission to find gluten-free food. Working together to finish the junior ranger packets. Spotting a deer grazing off the side of the trail. There were good moments. 

At the end of our day visiting the Wind Cave we let our children choose ridiculously unhealthy amounts of sugar in the form of an “ice cream sundae”. They giggled with delight, both at the fact that we were letting them eat all of this otherwise off-limits sugar, and at the idea that they had beaten us at our game. The interactions we had throughout the day of the bingo board, and the collective meaning created of our overall trip - one of frustration, teamwork, and beating the heat (not to mention surviving an overly friendly bison) is what these family trips are all about. Trips to the National Parks are not going to be idealic despite what anyone’s social media page says. But they can be filled with family meaning making and memories, despite all of the whining and complaining that may come about.