The Secret to a Great Family Outing

The secret to the most fulfilling outings with children is also the most successful way to approach just about every aspect of caring for them. If you read here regularly, I imagine you can guess that this secret is simply seeing through the eyes of our child, being open to considering an outing from our child’s perspective. Doing this helps us ensure that the special plans we make for our kids are actually designed for them, not driven by our own agenda.

Removing our adult lens can be more challenging than it sounds. We get excited about sharing our favorite experiences, hobbies, and passions and forging closer bonds with our children by introducing them to our view of the world. Our enthusiasm comes from the most positive, loving place, and that’s wonderful.  But there’s a deeper joy in spending time with children when it is all about mutual discovery — discovering our child and, at the same time, rediscovering our world through their lens of innocence, openness, and simplicity.

Philip Mott is a teacher, writer, husband and parent. Here, he reflects on his process of discovery in a story he allowed me to share:

I was excited to take our son out in our new bike trailer. He was even excited to go. I guess I had hyped it up enough. A bike ride felt like a great way to be outdoors and spend some time together. It ended up being a very convoluted process. Lots of complicated procedures involved that he can’t really help with like getting everything in and out of the vehicle, hooking it up, strapping him in. After packing up all the equipment, we were traveling on a paved path and the world was whizzing by him without him being able to absorb any of it. I looked back at him and saw no observable expression of joy on his face. He was content, but indifferent.

I started wondering if that’s why kids fall asleep in the car so often. They can’t actually interact with the world at that speed so they just check out.

I passed a shallow creek that flows right into the river. “That’s what we need to be doing,” I thought. No straps. His speed. His ideas.

I stopped the bike and we made our way down to the creek. Rocks, puddles, trees, roots, bushes, leaves, mud, and his insatiable curiosity. His small hands are the perfect size for picking up each rock, his little legs for exploring each step. Just imagine…a whole riverbed full of rocks. He’s finding that there are no two alike. He spends a few moments analyzing each one ˗ comparing and categorizing this rock to the other rocks he’s held before. This is a big one. This is small. This is red. This one is broken. They all splash. He tuned his ears into the sound of each rock as he threw it into the water, giggling each time he found the deep “kerplunk!” he was looking for.

If I would’ve kept to my agenda there would’ve been no time for such activities.

When I tell people about Magda Gerber’s RIE approach it’s normally in the context of avoiding tantrums and power struggles. I think it’s been a wrong focus for me. RIE isn’t about avoiding tantrums. My son didn’t complain once during our ride. The RIE approach is centered on awareness. I stopped the bike ride because I became aware of who the bike ride was for. It was for me. I wanted to feel like a good father and still go at my speed. I wanted to feel “productive” but still spend “time” with my boy. I don’t think I was accomplishing either. I still went slower than I would like to go and I went fast enough that he probably wasn’t appreciating the scenery.

Even as I’m writing this I’m realizing that my son sees with his whole body. It’s not enough to look at a guitar. He wants to touch it, hear it, and for little babies…taste it! When I slowed down to his speed he was able to understand our world with all his senses.

If scientists have taught us anything they’ve shown that understanding partially comes through observation, and observation comes through repetition. I think my agenda was robbing him of that thoughtful process. Is the bike trailer garbage? Nope, it actually served as a good transporter to that little creek spot. That spot was about half a mile from our truck and we wouldn’t have found it without the trailer. However, now I can treat the trailer as a means to an end rather than the end itself.


This experience will definitely impact the activities I encourage him to do, the kinds of toys and books I pick out for him, and the speed at which I expect him to be done with something. I’ll be asking myself, “Who is this activity for? How is his need for freedom and learning impacted? How does it affect his need for power? And what words and body language do I use to meet his need for love? I see very little reason for tantrums when these needs are met, but the RIE approach has given me the best tools for recognizing and meeting those needs most consistently.

Janet, your work has meant so much to my wife and me and our two little ones. I can’t imagine how much more difficult parenting would be without your practical guidance and heart towards children.

Philip received his Bachelor’s in elementary education and has worked as a classroom teacher and parent consultant. One Handed Parent is his Tumblr dedicated to collecting thoughts and inspiration on parenting, learning, education policy, and personhood.

Thank you, Philip, for sharing your story and lovely photo!

(Title photo by John Morgan at Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Great story. I remember feeling conflicted putting the kids in the bike trailer or stroller. Sometimes though parents just need to get outside, get some exercise or do errands. We don’t all have the luxury of endless amounts of time or funds for childcare. Sometimes we can take life slow and enjoy the passing clouds and other times we need to work together to accomplish something. Hopefully this article inspires people to look for ways to slow down. It’s magical when that happens 🙂

  2. Jared Morrison says:

    Thanks Janet and Philip, this is starting to make a lot of sense. I’m a type A dad, work hard/play hard, and I want to pack in a lot of good memories with my kids when I have time off. I am frustrated when my bosy, ages 2 and almost 4, end up whining and crying, making a family day out a big mess.

    My wife had me read an article about why over-planned events rarely work for young kids (here’s a link which really surprised me. I thought stimulation was what we’re supposed to do for them, but reading your article sort of cements it for me. I’m saving big events for when they’re older.

    1. Laura Grace Weldon is one of my favorite online writers and friends. I am so glad her article resonated with you (and thank you for reminding me of it and sharing it here!). I also had believed it my job to stimulate my baby and was enlightened and, to be honest, greatly relieved by Magda Gerber’s teachings. Trusting children and just “being” together is better than enough. Thanks again, Jared.

    2. Jared, I think I understand where you’re coming from. I think you’re going to try and save your big events for later and you’re realizing that their events are already big to them. They’re not missing out on big events. When I think of it, what could be bigger than a father giving their child time to understand the world? I think the hard part is waiting to share the big events together. Our culture has done a good job convincing us that we can only enjoy our kids to a certain age so we have to make the most of it. If Magda Gerber was right, then the foundation you’re building with your boys now will help them learn to experience the world at your speed eventually. Then, the big things you always looked forward to will probably be the ideas, conversations, and work they share with you. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Loved the article. As the weather has started cooling down we have started biking more. We plan our trips so we can get a few miles of peddling and have a destination of beach or playground that we can stop at for an hour or so before we go back. She gets to explore and we get some exercise and can watch what she gets into. She gets excited about bikes and rides. But lets face once your in the trailer its about as much fun as a car seat… Thanks for all the lovely articles. They have helped us fill our parenting toolbox with practical ways to work with our daughter and made us feel much more confident about the job at hand!

    1. You are so welcome, Elisa. I was thrilled that Philip allowed me to share his very insightful reflection!

  4. Slowing down and taking the time to be in the moment is the most rewarding of all. Certainly the explorations in the woods will be balanced with museaum trips and climbing around a jungle gym. But even then, the focus can be from the pace and perspective of the child. This embraces respect and the child will understand your grace.

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