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A National Geographic Adventurer Of The Year On Raising Adventurous Kids

People who say “let’s take the [insert high altitude] view on this” — meaning “Are we looking at the big picture?” — are usually your boss. But for Tommy Caldwell, one of the top rock climbers on the planet and someone who routinely hangs off of mountains by his fingertips, this annoying corpo-speak describes the view from his office.

Earlier this year, Caldwell and partner Kevin Jorgeson became first people to successfully free ascent (that’s only using ropes to not die) the Dawn Wall route of Yosemite’s El Capitan — what Outside called “arguably the most difficult ascent in the history of rock climbing.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, earned him nomination for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year (his second), and the right to tell other people how to be stone cold in the face of death.

Instagram / Becca Caldwell

Caldwell has climbing in his DNA. It was his father who instilled in him an adventurous spirit (and sizeable cajones), and now he’s trying to do the same for his 2-and-a-half-year-old son, Fitz. “I just want Fitz to think the world is an awesome freakin’ place,” he says. “Therefore, I have to think that as well. It’s one thing that people undervalue. It’s really important to do the things that feed you, so you can look at the world that way. Having a kid brought my most cherished values into focus. I wanted to be a good example of that.”

Toddlers Are Tougher Than You Think
“Most of my parents’ peers looked at [my dad] like he was a bit kooky for putting me in these situations,” says Caldwell, whose father was also a mountain guide and loved to expose (and occasionally overexpose) his kids to the great outdoors. “My parents tell a story about when I was 2-and-a-half and still in diapers, my dad took us deep into the mountains, and we spent the night in a snow cave during a raging blizzard. He felt like this was really good for me. But he wanted to instill in me this sense of adventure and was successful at that.”

Tommy Caldwell and His Father, Mike CaldwellFacebook / Tommy Caldwell

Feel Fulfilled For Your Kids
There’s a reason people like Caldwell climb mountains: the answer to every spiritual question is at the top. “A lot of people walk through this life feeling like something is missing. In my mind, that’s because life is so dull. We don’t have to find water or hunt for our food. Climbing fulfills that need within me. My dad totally understood that. He was energized by that adventure and wanted me to understand that as well. I want Fitz to, but in a way that’s calculated and won’t kill him.”

Speaking Of Not Killing Them
Caldwell knows you think what he does is crazy, but he insists that with all his training and gear, he’s safer than your average petextrian. “The Dawn Wall is a perfect example of something I thought was not risky,” he says. “I’ve become more thoughtful about the types of climbs that I do. When I had a kid, I reevaluated my life. Every day I look at my son and ask, ‘What kind of example do I set for him?’ I certainly don’t want him to walk through life in fear.”

Instagram / Rebecca Caldwell

Model Confidence
“[Climbing] does teach you to analyze and manage the risks you take. You live in a turbulent world and you have to figure out how to manage that,” he says. “I’ve developed this mentality to just have confidence that no matter what gets thrown in my way I’ll deal with it. I took having a child just like that. Yeah, it’s going to change things, but we’ll figure it out. I think any parent has to take that leap.” Note, that’s the metaphorical kind of leap — not the kind that goes splat.

Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared
Are you crippled with fear every time your child misses a monkey bar? You’re not going to believe this, but Caldwell doesn’t share your neurosis. “I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the fear side of it,” he says. “But I do think about how can we make it safe? Here’s an example: Everyone I know who has kids has a trampoline, and they have a net up around the trampoline. I’d rather get Fitz on that trampoline and get him learn and respect the boundaries of it and use it in a proper way. That will lead to it being safe. Prepare him for the path, not prepare the path for him.”

Instagram / Rebecca Caldwell

Carry Them On
Are you about to spend a couple of hours in holiday traffic with a baby? Take comfort in the fact that the Caldwells brought their infant around the world with them — and it was excellent. “I became convinced that the traveling lifestyle is the way to raise a small child. We did pay attention to schedules, like putting him down for a nap. But maybe that nap can be taken when we’re hiking through the mountain in a backpack. We’d also bring this pop-up tent everywhere we went. So that when we put him in it, no matter where we were in the world, he would feel at home.”

Learn When To Learn
“Having a kid is also humbling. I used to have firm opinions on what I thought was right and wrong. Now I have things I think are right, but I may be wrong. My wife is such a logical, amazing person that she puts me in my place constantly. Before we had a child I’d say following the whole nap schedule thing is bogus and people just feel like they have to do that. I learned pretty quickly that if Fitz doesn’t get a nap every day, he’s a lot harder to deal with. I was really wrong — about that.

Instagram / Rebecca Caldwell

Tuba Players Are Awesome Too
“I love having Fitz outside as much as possible. My favorite times are when we’ve lived out of our van. I feel like that’s really helpful for him and fun for us. We’re also around very inspired people all the time, and we want to immerse Fitz in that community. If he likes that world, great. But if he wants to spend all of his time playing the tuba, we support that too. Ultimately we want him to be his own person. It’s walking that line of when to push your kid into things and when to back away. We’re just now having to figure that out.”