How Mindfulness Helped My Daughter Finish a Big Hike

Picking wild blueberries on the hike before the whining started.

“I’m tired. My feet hurt. I don’t want to walk anymore and it’s really hot. I need to stop and rest. Can you carry me? Why can’t you carry me?”

In her defense, my 8 year old made it all the way up and most of the way down a fairly steep hike before the whining began. My husband reminded her of what a good hiker she is, and that the more she practiced hiking, the better she would get at it, and that the hardest part of the trek was already behind us, and that she just needed to keep walking and we would get her a giant plate of pasta (without the dreaded red sauce, of course) as soon as we got back to the car.

None of it helped. She was a grumplestiltskin.

Fortunately, this was my moment to shine, and not just because I’ve spent the better part of a decade practicing mindfulness in a desperate attempt to get a little space from my own obnoxious, unhelpful thoughts. It’s also because I have years of experience suffering my way up and down various hills and mountains. I love hiking, but steep inclines can be particularly challenging for me and I can easily end up as cranky as, well, an 8 year old.

“Ok, kiddo,” I said as I took her sweaty little hand in mine. “Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re going to count our steps, 1-8, and then start again. I’m going to count to 8 first, and then it’s your turn.” And so I started counting, saying each number out loud as my feet hit the ground. I counted and then my daughter counted and together we fell into a steady rhythm as we walked along the rocky trail.

Within a couple of minutes, my daughter asked if she could make up a song instead. Sure! Here’s what she came up with:

Hiking. Boom. Hiking. Boom. Ha Ha Hiking Boom.

Walking. Boom. Walking. Boom. Wa Wa Walking Boom.

We held hands and repeated her chant in a steady rhythm for the next twenty minutes. My older daughter and husband walked ahead of us, occasionally looking back and smiling at our ridiculous little ditty.

Once we were back in the car, my daughter commented on how helpful the counting and singing had been. I explained that it was a little trick I invented in college, when I often went hiking with friends. I was embarrassed to stop in front of them so I had to figure out a way to keep going even when I was tired. 

And then we talked about why, and how, my strategy worked. (Because when your mother is a social worker, you get to process *everything*.) This is what we came up with:

  1. It helped tame my daughter’s unruly thinking. Her tired brain got stuck in cranky thought patterns, which made it hard for her to think about anything else. (This is just what the human brain does when it’s tired.) Instead of trying to force her exhausted brain to do something it couldn’t do, we just gave it something super easy to focus on.

  2. It kept her brain in the present moment, focused on one step at a time. Tired brains are particularly prone to stressing about the past or worrying about the future. In this case, my kiddo just kept worrying about how much longer the hike would last and whether it would get hard again and if her body was going to get even more tired. All that future thinking made the hike seem harder than it actually was.

  3. My daughter’s body was feeling particularly sore and tired, which meant it needed a little extra help to keep walking. A walking stick might have worked, but we couldn’t find a good one. A piggy back ride from a parent might have also done the trick, but we were both carrying backpacks, and besides, she’s going to outgrow that option in the next year or two. Rather, we needed help from her brain; chanting or singing something with a steady rhythm did the trick and kept her moving.

  4. Keeping your body and brain working on the same thing often makes hard tasks easier. If your body is doing one thing, but your brain is doing something else, then your brain has to think about what it’s doing while also trying to keep an eye on your body and that’s stressful and makes things harder. And yes, whining and complaining (even if you’re whining and complaining about what your body is actually doing in that very moment) counts as doing two different things because your brain gets distracted by how unhappy you are. Counting, chanting, or just describing whatever you’re doing keeps your brain in sync with your body.

We also talked about how this strategy can be helpful for almost any hard activity, not just hiking. You can count your way through boring tasks like cleaning up beads that have fallen all over the floor or chant to keep your mind focused while you fold laundry or jump rope. I also briefly mentioned that we were practicing mindfulness. I didn’t push it though, because when you’re mama’s a social worker, well, sometimes it’s enough already.

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