My adventures with my son: from caving to kayaking

My adventures with my son: from caving to kayaking

Now that it is drawing to a close (he’ll be 16 tomorrow), I can reflect that one of the aspects of my son Sam’s childhood I have got right — not entirely right but more or less — is that we’ve enjoyed a fair few adventures together. I mean old-school, wholesome, muddied knees, unorganised, largely (but not entirely) rural adventures. Famous Five stuff. But without the other two kids. Or the dog. Or the class hatred.

Not that we’ve done anything wildly dramatic or dangerous. Which is partly why I say I didn’t get it entirely right. Perhaps we — I — should have pushed a bit harder at the limits of our comfort zones, his and mine. Or then again, maybe not. Who knows? I made my judgments, based on what I saw as his limits and mine at the time, better to be safe than sorry.

The point is, we have, Bob and Sam, man and boy, father and son, shared a measure of excitement, adversity and discomfort. We’ve been camping and kayaking, climbed trees and crawled through woods, scaled one or two decent hills, explored one or two decent caves, which got a bit low and cramped at the end and spooked us a little. Spooked me, at any rate; I’m not happy in confined spaces. Not that I let it show to Sam. Never let the fear show, dad; that’s rule No 1.

We’ve hunted for polar bears in Norway. We’ve collected, scrutinised, chopped and incinerated wood on beaches up and down the nation. We’ve scrambled over rocks, fished in seas, rivers, streams and lakes in good, indifferent, bad and atrocious conditions. We have constructed inadequate hideouts, lain in wait for unsuspecting enemies — wife/mother and daughter/sister chiefly, but plenty of Nazis too, of course. Let’s not forget those Nazis. We have barbecued — by God how we’ve barbecued — burgers by the score. Quite often in the rain.

Given where we live, Inner London, we’ve staged plenty of urban expeditions too. Down the towpath in the dark, that’s an adventure, karate-kicking Cybermen under one particular bridge. (Not so much now; this was when he was younger and obsessed with Dr Who.) Making a den in a copse in the park. Scaling a railing or a gate. Making sure those enemy submarines (Nazis again) don’t make it any farther up the canal. It all counts.

Mostly, it’s been a blast. I’ve loved it. We have had fun. Then again, I can’t deny there have been days — and nights, especially nights, nights spent needlessly under canvas, a warm bed beckoning mere yards away — when my enthusiasm has faltered. I’ve been cold and wet. I’ve been frustrated and tired. Even a little resentful, too, once or twice. Sorry about that, Sam. Yet I’ve never doubted that whatever foolishness we were engaged upon was worthwhile.

And not just because Sam manifestly loved every minute of that foolishness, not just because he nagged and badgered, insisted that whatever promises I had made must be honoured, not just because he then revelled in the maintenance of those promises, reliving the experience afterwards, many times over.

That — my son’s palpable enjoyment — is the main reason, of course, for contriving and enacting these adventures. His pleasure in these activities, irrespective of their notional success or, more likely, failure (we never caught a fish, never, as far as one can tell, put ourselves in any serious danger) knows no bounds. In and of itself, Sam’s delight in the anticipation, the preparation, the experience, the mythologising after the event, would be reason enough. But there are other reasons why we do it.

Not the least of which is simply habit. Custom and practice. I went camping and walking as a boy, great long hikes with my dad and brother in the Lake District: blisters, dehydration, exhaustion, but also satisfaction so profound that I’ve rarely matched it since.

Next, most adventures involve at least a degree of physical effort. Physical effort, I think we can all agree, is a good thing. Most children have energy to burn, and burn it they must. Some children — my daughter for example — find their release in team sports. Fair enough. My son, however, was never going to go down that route. Team sports were just not his thing, his style. He needed to be offered another option.

Next, these adventures have provided Sam — or at least I hope they have, I don’t know for sure, which is why I keep a very close eye on the boy — with a working appraisal of acceptable risk. As in, it’s OK to light this fire here, outdoors, in this area, well away from any flammable structures, whereas it’s not OK to light a fire here, in an enclosed space, such as this tent where we happen to be, as you just suggested.

Many boys start from the assumption that they know everything regarding matters practical. They think it’s a slight on their nascent masculinity to admit they don’t know how, say, to get a fire going with wet fuel and a wind roaring in. I think that attitude is fine, admirable, normal, but still, they need to be shown, in the nicest possible way, that they actually know sod all. They need to be taught. In the process, they not only acquire some skills, they also take on the broader lesson that skills rarely come for free; they must be learnt.

Why else is adventure valuable? Because it develops self-reliance, of course. Because it’s good to set up a challenge and meet it. Or not meet it, but learn how you might meet it next time. Because being cold and wet gives you a deeper appreciation of being warm and dry. And people seek adventure also, of course, to get a thrill, a rush, an adrenalin fix. Which brings us to the issue of risk.

We’ve developed an irrational relationship with risk over the past few decades. I know parents who wouldn’t dream of taking their child out kayaking, or letting them climb a tree, or swim in a river, but who nonetheless sometimes don’t bother about that same child not wearing a seatbelt on a short journey. Or who don’t have smoke detectors in their house. Or who are perfectly content to watch their kids running down the stairs in their socks.

When we went on a family holiday to America three years ago, a long road trip down the East Coast, each time we arrived at a new hotel or motel, if we were staying above the ground floor, my wife or I would locate the stairs and show the children where they were. We always do this, whenever we stay somewhere new. No doubt many parents might think this is a bit weird. But they’d be wrong.

Along with road traffic accidents — either as a passenger or as a pedestrian — and unintentional falls, the commonest cause of childhood fatality or injury is fire. So pointing out the emergency exit to your children is the same as securing their seatbelt, telling them to look before crossing the road or suggesting that tipping back on their chair is a bad idea.

So I’m not one for exposing my children to danger for the sake of it. I just try to make a rational assessment of what constitutes danger. On that basis, I’d rather Sam took up parachuting (occasionally) than rode a moped around London every day. Although his mother isn’t about to let either happen. Life is full of risks. You have to assess the ones worth running and the ones that aren’t. You also have to judge the risk inherent — boredom, obesity, ignorance — in trying to live a life free of risk.

Besides, I sometimes think that the issue of risk, of danger, is no more than the convenient excuse of a parent who actually doesn’t want to make the effort of organising some activity. We’re busy, we’re tired, we want to relax, the kids have got plenty of gadgets to keep them entertained — we rope in risk to shoulder the blame for us taking the easier option. I’ve certainly done this: many more times than not. And I wish I hadn’t.

Still, he’s only 16. Plenty of time for more adventure yet.