A few weeks ago I had the joy of sharing a short six kilometre overnight hike with my son Graham, his wife and their four children on the beautiful Kepler Track in Fiordland.

The primary goal was to initiate their youngest son, four year old Liam, into hiking, one of the family's favourite outdoor activities.

From Rainbow Reach carpark to Moturau Hut on the shores of Lake Manapouri is a gentle amble along well-maintained tracks carpeted with leafage from the towering canopy of beech - a perfect introduction for a first time young hiker.

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We had 24 wonderful hours of memory-making moments. Not only was it very special to be out in the wilderness with my family but the beauty of Southland beech forest was a first for me - so different from the dense northern bush I'm accustomed to.

There was also an unexpected multi-layered learning opportunity for the adults.

After leaving the hut on Sunday morning, well rested and with porridge-fuelled energy, the children skipped off down the track. The adults were right behind. For about 20 minutes Liam kept up with his siblings. Then I noticed him falling to the back of the group.

With a nod to Mum to stretch her legs and enjoy the chance to step out, I took his hand. As the rest of the family kept up their natural pace, grandmother and small boy dropped back to his preferred speed - a very leisurely suburban-style stroll. As we ambled along there were lengthy discussions about bush, birds and plants. Very quickly the family disappeared from sight, although for some time we could still hear them ahead. (A gaggle of happy kids is not a silent event, as every parent knows.)

Eventually Graham reappeared, waiting on the track for us.

'Come on Liam, you're dawdling. You can do better than this.' He took his child's hand and strode off. Although Dad wanted him to learn about and enjoy the bush he also had another more immediate agenda - to teach his child to cover distance and keep up with the rest of the family.

Bringing up the rear, at first I felt a bit sorry for the child. He had to semi-jog to keep up with his long-legged father. I wondered if Dad was being a bit tough.

I queried him about expecting Liam to keep up to the speed of the older kids. He replied, 'The other three were much better walkers at this age, Mum. He should be able to keep up.'


'So why is he slower?'

'I think it's just practice. When the others were small we had to walk our dog every day and they usually came too. As soon as they could walk they did, often for an hour. But the dog was too old and frail by the time Liam came along so he hasn't done anywhere as much walking. I hadn't realised how slow he would be. Maybe it's time for another dog. The others were less than a year older than him when I started taking them on overnight hikes in Tongariro National Park - and they had to carry some of their own gear. He just needs extending: then he'll find it easy to keep up.'

This little experience got me thinking about what we expect of our children, how easy it is to mollycoddle them, and the unintended consequences.

On one level I'd just done it myself, although I certainly didn't regret it. The benefit had been a very special 45 minutes with one of my youngest grandchildren which I'll always cherish. (He finished the six kms in excellent condition, encouraged into a faster pace by both parents, as happy as a pigeon in a puriri tree. He can't wait for the next adventure.)

A Common Example of Overprotected Children

In my quiet rural community some mothers routinely drive their kids a couple of kms down short safe country roads to catch the school bus and then meet them at the end of the day to reverse the process. And these children are not new entrants. (I suspect this happens all over the country.)

We do our children no favours by putting them in tin boxes and zipping them everywhere fast. Instead we waste our time, stunt their growth and deny them a multitude of wonderful life experiences.

What They Could Learn By Being Self-Managed

• As they kick down the road to school or bus they become more aware of their environment. They'll see things in gardens, on roadsides and in paddocks if they're country children.

• Children are naturally curious - it gives them the chance to explore instead of stunting their curiosity with man-made limitations.

• They have to practice social skills if they walk with other children. (I remember some fierce arguments with my older cousins as my younger siblings and I walked two miles to the bus down country roads (I was eight) but it taught us a lot about how to get along.)

• They'll have their safety-first road knowledge refined.

• They learn to take responsibility for their own time-keeping. If they miss the bus or get late to school they have to explain the reason why to both parents and teachers, and suffer the consequences.

• If they get wet they quickly learn that raincoats are not just a nuisance.

• Could they get into trouble? Sure. That's how they learn.

• Could there be danger? We've got to let our kids learn that too. Packing them with cotton wool isn't the way to teach them anything.

Some Ideas On How To Keep Them Safe:

• Teach them the safety rules and then trust them to be the smart intelligent children you know you've raised.

• When they're little, walk or cycle with them.

• Or, get an older child to walk or ride with them.

• Start a Walking Bus in your community.

Over-protecting them is not loving them. Instead, it hurts them. We all benefit from being stretched, no matter what our age.

[I'll be back at the end of January. Thank you for all your comments over the year, including the ones who don't agree with me and the eagle-eyed ones who take issue with my grammar or word usage. I learn from your contributions and appreciate you taking the time to read and respond. Have a wonderful Christmas and may your holiday season bring you many blessings.]