Where We Go Wrong When Introducing Kids to the Outdoors

Many of us can still remember shooting our first rabbit or catching our first bluegill. I can call to mind the feeling of sneaking under a bridge to shoot a pigeon and also accidentally hooking my grandpa’s ear while bass fishing. These memories motivate us to take the kids in our lives out on the lake or into the woods. As a fishing guide and bow tech, I have enjoyed guiding families and built kids bows. But through the process I have realized we are making a couple mistakes. We over-emphasizing success and rush kids into hunting big game too early. Instead, our focus should be to build confident, determined kids that have an appreciation and maybe even a passion for the outdoors.

A Fixation with Success

The most common approach for getting kids to love the outdoors seems to be ensuring success. By getting kids to catch a fish they get to feel that same rush of emotions that we have fallen in love with. But it’s the context surrounding the success that is so rewarding, not necessarily the result. The rush comes from the hours we have put in developing our craft and the time we have spent thinking about what it will be like to finally hold a set of antlers.

Which develops better skills: passing a rod to a kid with a fish already on the line or letting them struggle to cast far enough for a few trips before finally catching a bluegill? Which option makes them think things should be handed to them and which leads to self-confidence and a determination to succeed?

Recently I went bass fishing with my sister, her husband, and my nephews Jack and Collin. I let the boys cast the whole time, and eventually the lures were getting far enough from the boat I thought we might not get skunked. Jack turned to me and said, “I thought we were going to catch more.” I told him, “That’s fishing Jack. I’ve been on a lot of good fishing trips where I didn’t catch anything.” If we had caught fish after fish it would have been more exciting, but the boys likely wouldn’t have seen the bigger picture. Failing teaches lessons that I don’t believe success covers.

We don’t want kids to think our sports amount to just killing animals, the way it is often framed by antis. As a hunter I experience success and failure depending on how well I prepare and perform–and a bit of luck. We should focus on having kids take part in the whole process and understand that success is anything but guaranteed.

Rushing Kids to Hunt Big Game too Early

As a bow tech in Utah, I often meet parents wanting to increase the poundage on their kid’s bows to clear the threshold for mule deer hunting. What’s the rush to hunt big game? What I loved about hunting when I was younger was getting away from teachers and parents telling me what to do, along with the unforeseeable outcome of the hunt and the challenge to outwit the game. Today, we escape bosses and spouses to hunt larger more demanding species, but the feeling of freedom and solitude in the woods is the same. That’s what I want my nephews to experience. I want to give them the opportunity to overcome obstacles through hunting and come to have a better understanding of the outdoors and what it takes to succeed.

The species should meet a kid where they are at. I don’t believe an eight-year-old can reasonably piece together a deer hunt without quite a bit of handholding. But they can run around the backyard shooting rabbits and squirrels. Those hunts give kids the maximum amount of responsibility and decision making power. Additionally, if a young kid shoots a buck, will he ever enjoy shooting pigeons under a bridge? If a kid catches a marlin, will she get excited about catching a ten-pound carp? Taking small steps to bigger game and more challenging hunts allows kids to learn more about hunting and themselves. In my opinion, when a kid gets excited about a hunt, puts in effort, and overcomes obstacles, that’s a success.

Conclusion

Thoreau wrote, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

I once spent a few days guiding a father and his seventh-grade son fishing for salmon in Alaska. It was clear the kid wasn’t mature enough to comprehend the trip represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people. Instead, he fixated on catching one salmon and proving himself to his dad. Unfortunately, the dad didn’t do much to get away from that fixed mindset of success. What happens when they return home and the kid doesn’t want to go catch bluegill in the quarry because he won’t receive the same praises as for a 40-pound king salmon? Does it really build a love of fishing, self discipline or humility to have a paid guide hold your hand throughout the process?

By comparison, that same summer I guided a 70-year-old man and his 40-year-old son. When I stood in the river with the son he would say, “I just really want my dad to catch one.” And, when I walked over to his father at the other end of the bend he would tell me, “I’m really glad to see he’s having a good time.” These were two guys that understood it wasn’t the fish they were after. They wanted each other to the enjoy experience and weren’t fixated on their own success.

Don’t worry so much about success or big game. Focus on providing an example of dedication and respect for the outdoors. You either get bit by the bug or you don’t. Some kids are wired to love the sport and some are not. Fishing and hunting provide an opportunity to challenge kids and make them learn valuable lessons. It would be a shame to miss those opportunities by focusing too much on antlers and scales.

Thank you for reading, Stu

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