A Family That Walks Together

The myriad benefits of walking are well-documented, for health and happiness. But if we force the kids to tag along, is it still a good walk?

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Stocksy
Traditions Of The Holidays

My grandfather was a person who could disarm a kid and charm a room with a laugh, but he was also a man who had been to war. His sense of military precision was ever-present, whether in pressuring an adherence to manners, the (mostly) disciplined way he showed anger or frustration, or the insistence on an order of operations. Every social function at his house followed a schedule.

Around Christmas, the day started early with his infamous Milk Punch, paired with cheese and crackers, followed by still more appetizers, beer, and ginger ale (for the kids) — all of which got us to the holiday feast. We sat down and ate, and then the illusion of leisure would set in. We’d all bask for a moment in the idea that a free and unstructured afternoon yawned before us, and then, like clockwork, the whole family would get up and go for a walk.

It was an aimless walk — or at least one that followed its own course. When at my parents’ house, we’d follow a loop that edged the woods and maybe continue on around the bordering horse farm. At my grandparents, in eastern Pennsylvania, we would walk through their small town, or, if we were lucky, up to the playground where I tried to sneak in a quick slide and monkey-bar traverse before the adults meandered on. In Maine, where my grandfather had a cabin, we would walk up the incredibly steep gravel-and-mud driveway and then down the dirt lane.

None of these were hikes you’d put on a bucket list, or even walks you’d tell a visitor to take. They were simply walks. Together, as a family. I never really thought of it as a tradition — until I had my own kids. Now I recognize the tradition for what it is, and I want to keep it alive.

When you’re walking, there’s something about the pace and the breathing that smooths the mind.

“When you’re walking,” says Ben Shattuck, the author of Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, “there’s something about the pace and the breathing that smooths the mind. Thoreau talks about the dust on the trail settling like thoughts in your mind settling. There’s really something about that. In 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes, you start to feel different. I would wager that your kids experience that after a while and you can become addicted to it.”

Six Walks is a book as joyful as it is deep, following a lone Shattuck as he follows Thoreau on aimless walks only a carefree (read, younger) person has the time to fully indulge. Now a father to 3-year-old Ida, who he cares for with his wife, Jenny Slate, Shattuck can no longer walk with abandon — at least not in the way he documented so beautifully just a handful of years ago.

Thoreau considered the solo walk to be a radical act: “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,” he wrote in “Walking,” which ran in The Atlantic in 1862, “if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”

That doesn’t sound very realistic to this dad. If walking is the act of departure into the world for the lone wanderer free of entanglements, what’s the parent of a young child to do? Like Shattuck, I’m a dedicated dad who likes to walk — but dragging a whining kid along doesn’t exactly sound like freedom. With all respect to Thoreau, quiet solitude might not always be the point of a walk.

If you are ready to leave … wife and child and friends, and never see them again … and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

For some of us, fatherhood is the introduction to the aimless but purposeful family walk. After all, walking with your baby strapped to your body is among the first one-on-one bonding experiences dads get to have with their children.

“It’s like a special thing that dads can do,” says Shattuck, who is fresh off the time when you strapped a newborn into a sling or pack or wrap and took off. “Mothers have such a close sweet connection with a baby. I felt so good to have a warm little baby strapped to my chest and the perfumed scent of her head. Her first tradition was a walking tradition.”

“I’ve taken so many walks and I wrote a book about walking,” says Shattuck. “But those walks with Ida, I can almost remember every building we passed.”

I, too, remember these walks — five years ago now — with my son slung across my body in a long beige wrap. Though we were wandering the streets of Brooklyn, our walks were more like idyllic nature hikes, in which I was so present I can still recall odd details — a snake statue blocks from my house, which I’d never noticed before; the emptiness of the plaza near the entry to the park; the architectural curves of Maple leaves that caught the attention of my snug but alert infant.

But good luck getting wholly lost in your thoughts and forgetting your debts when your child is attached to your body. The infant strapped to you might be, as Shattuck puts it, “more like a spirit than a person,” but it’s a spirit that you are responsible for — forever. Walking with our infants fosters presence, but that presence is much more grounding than freeing. In this sense it’s a responsible walk — the heart and soul of the family walk.

The fight against being sedentary is worth having for parents — and the family walk is our greatest tool.

After my kids got legs, so to speak, we kept the walks going. They’re different, of course, now that a kid is no longer strapped to my body, sleeping as I saunter. Leaving for a walk now includes clawing the children away from whatever it is that entices them to stay sedentary — LEGOs, books, or all too often screens. This is where I could easily dive into a “kids these days” rant. I could say that kids don’t like to walk or even move anymore and the stats bear it out to an extent. According to a survey conducted by the Physical Activity Alliance, some 42% of 6- 11 year olds and 15% of 12-17 year olds meet (in my opinion, wildly modest) physical activity guidelines. But at their core, kids want to move. I think the fight against being sedentary is worth having for parents — and the family walk is our greatest tool.

I’ve grown rather insistent about the family walk. I usually don’t think much about where we go, so long as we’re walking. There are often waypoints, like a playground or a fun wooded area, but there’s rarely a destination. We usually walk around blocks. We observe things out loud. We talk or play games (we have this one at dusk that is a sort of tag/hide-and-seek mashup where all the shadows are base). But at its core it’s all about the walk, putting one leg in front of the other and seeing what happens. (I used to get the “Where are we goingggg?” entreaty, but that has faded with time; my kids seem to understand that a walk is a walk). Shattuck seems to agree that this is the way to do it: aim for “open aimless sauntering.”

He has some guidelines for walking that I take to heart, things I now keep in mind as I continue my family’s walking tradition. First of all, a walk should have a low barrier to entry. A hike is not a walk, says Shattuck. “If you want to Walk with a cap W, you need your gear, and go to LL Bean,” he says. But this “outdoor culture and atmosphere can really be impenetrable and turn people away from walking. You don’t have to go to a wild Western place”

The joy that you can derive from walking comes from that sense of letting whatever that landscape is unfold.

Second, your walk should be somewhat purposeless. As Shattuck beautifully puts it, “the joy that you can derive from walking comes from that sense of letting whatever that landscape is unfold.” How do you do this when you’re, say, walking down a busy street after dinner? Shattuck suggests you do what Thoreau did. “Sometimes he would just walk in his favorite direction – southwest.”

The last piece of advice from Shattuck is an essential rule for good walks: Ditch the phone. “If you have a phone on in your pocket, it destroys the experience.” He parallels this with the idea espoused by Thoreau of the village. “But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village,” Thoreau wrote. “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses.” It’s not hard to connect the dots here. Your phone is a village that holds you back from the easy freedom of a simple walk.

After all, on family walks, we have enough of the village in tow. We have our kids, perhaps our spouse, and all the thoughts about their lives that come with it. The family walk is such a different tradition than the lone saunter. We dads can’t be radically alone with our thoughts in the way that Thoreau would want us to be on a walk. But we are detached from emails and texts, laundry and chores, debts and anxieties. When a family walks together, we’re as wholly present as we’ll ever be.

In this ever-connected world, an ability to detach in order to be present — to find real freedom — is a thing I hope to teach my kids to do. Walking is the perfect tool to get there. I think that’s what makes it the best family tradition.