Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an executive producer, most recently, on “My Name is Pauli Murray,” a film that premiered at Sundance, is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
On Friday, eight-year-old Sam Adventure Baker became the youngest person to ever summit El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—a 3,000-foot rock formation that’s 2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building and a Class 5 climb in the National Climbing Classifications System.
He did it as part of a group of four that included his father, Joe, who told CNN that his son “was in a harness before he could walk.” According to Sam’s website, SamAdventure.com, the boy climbed the multi-pitch – that is, very advanced – Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs at the very un-advanced age of three.
Certainly, Sam is living up to the middle name his parents gave him. And what’s wrong with that? A life of adventure is a great thing for parents to want for their children, especially in an age when we worry about the impact all that screen time is having on their brains.
Beyond the benefits of being outside, encouraging kids to set goals and helping them reach them teaches them about the value in aiming high, and in doing hard things. It gives them confidence in their daily lives and in their future pursuits. As Sam’s website puts it, “adventure creates courage,” and “each mountain Sam climbs is intended to be another challenge that he will learn to overcome.” He is learning the importance of physical fitness, as well as skills he can use for the rest of his life.
Indeed, the hope of Sam’s parents for their son is hard to object to. It’s one reason that the family is aiming, according to Sam’s website, to use their experiences to make films that “inspire parents to do big things with their kids.”
But how can parents know if they’re sharing with kids a particular love (of anything) and in turn, helping them find passions or instead putting their own hopes and dreams on them, and looking to them to fulfill them?
Sam’s parents are avid rock climbers. They fell in love with each other while rock climbing. Rock climbing means a great deal to them, and it is more than natural that they’d want to share that love with their son, as parents with other interests often do for their children.
But it’s important for them, and like minded parents, to use caution, too. Whether the pursuit is physical, like summiting a 3,000 foot mountain, or intellectual, like getting good grades, there’s a fine line between sharing and encouraging children and pushing them beyond their natural capabilities.
It can be easy for parents to want to showcase themselves through their child. It can be easy for parents to take it personally if a child doesn’t want to do the thing his parents want him to do and, as a result, hard for some children to say no.
That’s when inspiration and influence could become imposition.
Certainly, to give a child the middle name “Adventure” would seem to indicate a life of adventure is what Sam’s parents hope for him. It is also perhaps what they expect of him, too. But how much room does that leave for Sam to explore his own interests? Or to know that it’s possible to even have his own interests? When parents’ interests become their kids’ interests at such an early age, how does one know the child wouldn’t, on their own, choose something else?
In the photos that appear on his website, Sam looks happy, but certainly some of that joy comes from being with his daddy. While that can create a strong parent-child bond, it can also, if carried out over time, encourage people-pleasing and too much dependence.
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Without dismissing what’s admirable here, it’s important to raise these points — and to hope that Sam’s mom and dad, and other parents like his, leave room for their children to express any hesitations, or alternative preferences, and to be okay if and when they do.
Child-minded parenting is not easy – it’s harder, probably, than a Class 5 climb. But entirely essential to raising kids to think and act for themselves, and to be whoever they want to be. Because that’s how kids gain confidence; that’s how goals are achieved.