Despite a series of near misses, we’ve just returned from our annual Easter camping trip with both children alive and well and our sanity intact. This is bush camping complete with dig-your-own pit toilets, tents and campfire cooking with a big group of friends, family and friends of family. It’s fabulous experience every year but it's not without its dangers.
Send the rescue party
We started with our six hour car trip extending to twenty five hours. Traffic drew to a standstill on the Hume Highway and after an hour or more we were diverted 300 km around a grass fire. The delay meant an unscheduled overnight stay in a border town and when the journey resumed the next morning hubby and I caught our breath as the trailer lost its axle and both wheels at 110 km per hour. The car swerved dangerously around the road with sparks spewing out behind and swiftly thereafter we were stranded with our belongings at the side of country road.
A couple of hours later the rescue party arrived, the trailer’s remains were taken away, and we hit the road and eventually made it to camp, but the threat to life and limb continued.
We came within minutes of boiling a full bottle of highly flammable stow away methylated spirits in the camp oven. This prompted much discussion amongst the group of the camping near misses over the years. The gas canisters that were accidentally thrown on the campfire in a rubbish clean up, the tree that came within centimetres of collapsing the tent filled with sleeping children, the canoe trip that left a 13 year old clinging to a tree in river rapids while the accompanying adults scrambled to pull her to safety. Remarkably and thankfully everyone has remained safe.
Risk and return
Camping is inherently dangerous. There are fires and rivers, the nights are dark and the bush can be unforgiving. We had nine or ten kids under fourteen in our midst this year with my boys the youngest at six and three. It was while I pondering the whereabouts of Mr 3, clad in pyjamas and gumboots, dummy in mouth, and traipsing around behind the other older kids in a nearby paddock in the dark that I wondered why in all other situations this level of danger to small children might be unacceptable but when camping it was just a matter of fact.
I’m not an anxious parent, which may yet be to my detriment, but as I see it there are benefits to kids of a camping adventure that far outweigh the risks.
1. Responsibility. There’s danger and then there’s managed danger. We camp with seasoned outdoors people and the rules for campfires, pocket knives, wood chopping, river swimming, canoeing, archery and all other activities are explained to even the youngest child and reinforced regularly. They’re told what they can and cannot do and why. The kids learn that there is freedom but there are also rules and responsibilities. They take those responsibilities seriously as they don’t want that freedom withdrawn.
2. Community. With a dozen or more adults and kids of all ages in the mix, we share meals, tools, toys and kit as well as care and accountability. The kids spend a week immersed in a community, learning to get along with people of different ages and generations, some of whom they may never have met before. They learn to ask new people for help and to play alongside kids with whom they might normally have little in common. They negotiate relationships and develop social skills in an environment in which everyone is looking out for them from a safe distance.
3. Skills and confidence. My six year old can now capably carve with a pocket knife, set and light a campfire (with supervision), paddle a kayak in a river, navigate his way through an electric fence, cut kindling with a tomahawk and steer the car through a paddock while seated a dad’s lap. The look of pride on his face as he has mastered each one and realised just what he is capable of is worth so much more to me than the risk that something may go wrong.
4. Independence. Our campsite kids travel in packs, big and small. They roam from the large tree stump in a distant paddock to the trees behind, from the river, to each other's tents and camper trailers. They look after each other and only return to base for parental assistance when they’re summoned or they’re in need of specific help (Mr 3 won’t venture to the pit toilet alone, fortunately). This willingness to explore the world without firm parental boundaries builds their self belief, heightens their curiosity and teaches them that they can rely on themselves and their peers to meet challenges, as well as giving us a break.
5. Resilience. When our trailer wheels went AWOL and our journey came to an abrupt halt amidst the yelps from his mum and dad, a look of alarm swept across Mr 6’s face and he promptly burst into tears. He wondered whether he would ever make it to the much anticipated ‘camping’. Moments later he pulled himself together and declared that being stranded by the side of the road awaiting rescue was ‘an exciting adventure.’ Being exposed to the unexpected and having to cope with camp meals that get delayed due to unreliable cooking facilities, sharing a blow up mattress with your brother because his got wet when the tent sprung a leak, remaining stoic in the face of scratches, cuts and minor burns and navigating the needs and wants of a tribe of other kids builds resilience; a type of resilience that a protected, parentally managed, stay at home middle class existence ordinarily cannot.
A parent's role
So we survived our week long camping adventure. A new trailer was procured, new friendships formed, old friendships reinforced, fresh air was breathed, legs were stretched, adventures were had. We've made it home to the relative safety of our home and while I'm enormously glad everyone returned intact I'm also enormously pleased that my kids have had the week they've had, regardless of the risks. They had a ball.
They're already looking forward to Easter Camping 2016, as are we, and they've returned a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser and ready for whatever challenge life brings them next, and ultimately, when I reflect on my role as a parent I know that it's my job to prepare my boys for the big wide world, not to protect them from it.
Were you a camping kid? Tell me about your near misses!