5 Ways Expedition Behavior Helps You Raise Kids

By Alyssa Walker

May 3, 2018

Two small children play together on the beach in Maine at low tide
Photo by Alyssa Walker

The most miserable and telling moment on my monthlong NOLS Alaska Outdoor Educator Course 13 years ago—descending a steep talus slope—taught me the value and beauty of expedition behavior, or EB. It also prepared me for an even bigger life adventure: parenthood.

Descending the talus slope of small, shifting rocks that seemed to move by themselves, I freaked, and my instructors and peers knew it. I tried not to let on. It didn’t work.

Each step felt like a leap on a highwire without a net. An instructor and a few friends stayed with me as I inched my gaitered boots over wobbly rock, stress-sweating and silently cursing. They guided me down, spoke calmly, and offered encouragement.

Hikers descending a talus field toward a muddy lake in Alaska's mountains
Photo by Tim Kelley

I had stopped talking. I was hungry, grouchy, sweaty, panicked, and more than once envisioned the call that my instructors would have to make to my parents, explaining that their adult child had had a nervous breakdown on a precarious stretch of talus and needed to be picked up.

Everyone on that course knew that I tried to help out in areas of the expedition that weren't necessarily the most fun. I got up early most mornings to boil water for hot drinks and organize breakfast. I volunteered to be the fourth traveler on the poop train even when I didn’t need to go—in Alaska, we pooped in groups of four, a protocol for protection against grizzly bears. I also sang enthusiastically off-key both for morale and bear noise, and carried the trash bag. I didn’t curse aloud.

They knew that I tried and wanted to see the expedition succeed. I knew that they all did, too.

We knew we were in it—whatever it was—together.

When we finally reached the bottom of the slope, we all sat close as we wolfed down cookies. No one spoke.

Here’s what didn’t dawn on me until later: everyone else was also recovering. That talus was hard on everybody—I wasn’t the only one.

That’s when I understood EB. That moment, sitting at the bottom of the slope, eating cookies, steadying my breathing, taking comfort in human company. Taking comfort that I survived something beyond the outer reaches of my comfort zone. Knowing that I wasn’t alone in my experience. That we’d all be ok, at least for the moment.

EB is about more than being there for each other. It’s about knowing when to step in and knowing when to leave someone alone. It’s about helping out when you’re tired and maybe a bit scared. It’s about realizing that you can have a moment and rely on others when you need to. It’s about picking up, doing your share, and getting on with it.

It’s about having confidence in your teammates and your mission.

That’s not just in the outdoors. That’s parenting. That’s relationships. Only every day feels like a talus slope.

The weird part? It’s fun.

When you learn EB and internalize it so that it becomes part of how you approach the world, not just your NOLS course, you can apply it to anything. Even raising kids.

Here are five ways you can apply E.B. to raising kids:

1. You understand the concept of being “in it” together.

two small children riding bikes, one with superhero cape and one with pink butterfly wings, both wearing helmets
Photo by Alyssa Walker

You need to understand that your family—however you define it—is your expedition crew. That’s who you have. Those are the ones on whom you depend and who depend on you. And no, it’s not always equal and it’s not always fair.

The other day, my four-year-old daughter was irate with me when I picked her up from preschool. Why? Daddy was supposed to pick her up, while I finished up a few work projects. When I explained that Daddy had to work later than expected and he asked me to get her, she burst into tears.

I kind of wanted to also. Getting the kids that day meant that I had to work late myself.

“I just miss Daddy,” she said. “Why does he have to work?”

“Hey,” I said, “we’ll stop and get squishy cheese [read: mozzarella], pick up your brother, and make pizza for dinner.”

She sniffled.

“Will Daddy be home in time to put us to bed?”

“No,” I said. “But we’ll get your brother at school, have a fun dinner, play a game, and read your favorites tonight, ok?”

“Ok,” she said.

At four, my daughter understands that we’re a family. That we pick up the slack and do our best to roll with unexpected situations. That it’s totally fine that plans change.

Whatever you do? Do the right thing. Be kind. Don’t whine. Make pizza.

2. You learn how to have fun, even if you don’t feel like it.

Expeditions are fun when you know your team has your back and you have theirs, even during the hard parts.

That talus field was not fun for anybody. After the cookies at the bottom, though? I was all about it. I felt ok. Better, even. We picked up, packed up, kept hiking, and all sang merrily along, off-key and still a touch jittery. It was FUN.

Our little family has fun all the time, even when we’re cranky. We play. We laugh. We sing. We let ourselves get silly.

Why? We know it’s safe. We know it’s just us, together. We know there’s no threat of getting hurt.

3. You’ll develop an attitude of gratitude.

For the weirdest things.

After the descent, I was thankful for cookies, a comfy backpack to sit on, and the patience of my instructors. In that order.

Now, every night at dinner, my husband and I ask the kids to share one thing they’re thankful for. At four and almost six, my kids’ lists include things like bees, a lint-free gummy bear in a pocket, playing a favorite game, and—my favorite—having a family dinner.

4. You can’t always do what you want to do when you want to do it.

Think Mick Jagger.

Sometimes, in the middle of a great hiking day, a talus slope presents itself and the only way through it is descent.

Sometimes, you want to write the first chapter in your book, go for a long run, take out your skis and skin up a mountain to practice your Telemark turns (so hard!), read a book and drink too much coffee, sit in the quiet.

Sometimes, instead, you have to make dinner, your meeting gets switched, your partner has to work late, someone pukes everywhere.

What do you do? You make dinner, change your plans, reschedule tomorrow, clean up the puke. You just do it.

No one said it was easy, but you’re in it together. See #1.

5. Someone needs to “get the water going” every morning.

Someone needs to get up and get each day started. When it can be you, do it. Pour that cup of coffee for your partner in a favorite mug. Get the kids’ breakfast going.

When it can’t be you, trust in your expedition partners—your family—that the morning will not fall apart. It will just look different from the way you do it. That’s ok.

My NOLS course was one of the best adventures of my life and I’m thankful for it.

So is having a family. Only this time? The expedition never ends. It’s every day.

Know that the behavior you managed and practiced on your NOLS course will serve you well in your family life if that’s a choice you make.

It’s up to you. It always is.

See NOLS outdoor educator courses.

Written By

Alyssa Walker

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer and editor, parent, and educator. She’s interested in intersections: education, equity, the environment, technology, and politics. She loves to read, write, drink coffee, and play with her kids. She lives in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and you can follow her on Twitter @lysmank. (NOLS Alaska ‘05)

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