When the mom talked about hiking in the Adirondacks with her 10 year-old son, she didn’t much mention the fresh mountain air or the dramatic views or the exercise.
Maryellen Wander Eyer talked about more important things: The conversations she and Jesse had as they hiked and how they connected. She described the pride of watching her son accomplish difficult tasks and the importance of getting him outdoors.
I met with Maryellen and Jesse Eyer on a recent afternoon at Tesago Elementary in Clifton Park, where she is a teacher and he is a fifth-grader. I was there because a reader had written to tell me that Jesse had recently become the youngest person to complete the Lake Placid 9er.
That’s a hiking challenge, created this year, involving some of the less-traversed peaks around Lake Placid, including Baxter Mountain in Keene and Bear Den Mountain in Wilmington. Jesse and Maryellen completed all nine hikes in August and September — about 30 miles of walking and 10,000 feet of elevation.
“It was easy for a 10-year-old kid like me,” said Jesse, who is obviously proud of his accomplishment and often wears his “Lake Placid 9er” shirt to school.
I didn’t do any hiking when I was 10, but -— non-sequitur alert — I was a big Andy Rooney fan. Yes, I mean the crusty but great columnist and television commentator with Albany roots. As my mom would watch “60 Minutes,” I would wait around for Rooney to come on.
I tell you that not to reveal that I was an odd kid, although that’s probably true. I wanted you to know that I am well aware I’m wandering into well-worn Rooney territory by complaining, as I’m about to do, about how kids these days don’t do the same things that prior generations did.
Playing that old record can be a mistake. Things change, as evidenced by the disappearance of record players, and not every new thing is a change for the worse. Records took up too much space.
Still, I’m declaring without hesitation that kids these days don’t spend enough time outside and spend too much time with screens.
When I was 10, we’d spend weekdays after school outside, which meant hours of running, arguing, jumping and throwing. You know, playing. Without supervision.
Kids these days don’t do much of that boring analog stuff. Walk through most neighborhoods, even on the most glorious of days, and you’re unlikely to hear any children at all. They’re inside, playing Fortnite or slaving over homework. (Schools assign too much.)
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports, with alarm, that the average American child spends seven hours a day staring at a television, computer or smartphone. While some parents believe all that screen time has positive effects, the negative ones are obvious.
We’ve all read that kids these days are fatter, and studies suggest that too much time indoors protected from the dirt and germs outdoors is leading to weaker immune systems.
Researchers also say that unstructured play, in particular, is essential to healthy brain development and emotion regulation.
Talk to parents and you’ll often hear frustration about video games, heavy homework loads and the intrusiveness of ever-buzzing smartphones. All the diversion and busyness can make it hard for moms and dads to stay connected to their children.
All of which explains why I’m happy to be writing about Maryellen and Jesse and the time they spent hiking. It is no small thing.
“It’s nice to get outside and connect and have the conversations that normally wouldn’t happen,” said Maryellen, who described Jesse as “a video-game kid.”
The days before a hike would include time together spent planning for and talking about the journey. Which trail would they do? How long would it take? Would they be prepared for the weather?
On the days of their hikes, Maryellen and Jesse would leave their Clifton Park home at 6:30 in the morning for the journey up the Northway, sometimes with friends or family along. They wouldn’t return home until the early evening.
They were long days but good and memorable ones. As they climbed, Maryellen and Jesse were hiking toward a shared goal while distancing themselves from the distractions that serve as barriers between parents and children. Not everyone needs to hike in the Adirondacks, but we could all benefit from quiet time spent with people we love.
“There’s no Wi-Fi,” Maryellen said of the mountains, “but the connection is stronger.”