We were ripping down u.s. highway 6, just outside of Golden, on the way to our first family camping trip when I realized I’d forgotten to pack pants for myself. My wife, Stefania, and I had meticulously put together a checklist for our two boys: mittens, wool beanies, pajamas with built-in feet—we had it all. Except my long pants. And, as it turned out, a jacket for Stef. We should have known to turn around right then.
But we’d been talking about camping for a year, and Sebastian and Leo were finally old enough, at four and two, to try the tent. Our goal was to introduce our boys to something we love—being outside in our beautiful state, getting away from the television and smartphones, and learning how to make authentic s’mores over an open wood fire.
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We set up camp near some cool rock formations in the Aspen Meadow section of Golden Gate Canyon State Park, and over hot dogs and brats we explained the concept of “roughing it”—how things can be a little different from the everyday routine, but that’s OK as long as you can adapt to the challenges that inevitably pop up. For a two-year-old, though, routine and creature comforts are of paramount importance. We were reminded of that when, after s’mores and story time, Leo refused to go to sleep without his mommy. So Stef crawled into the tent with the boys while I watched the fire slowly burn out. I could hear Sebastian tell Leo story after bedtime story in a valiant effort to help his little brother fall asleep. And then: silence.
An hour later, at 11 p.m., the silence was shattered by Leo’s screams. We’re talking echo-off-the-canyon-walls, wake-the-neighboring-campers shrieking. Nothing in particular was wrong, but he was inconsolable in the way that toddlers can be, until he eventually fell back to sleep, exhausted. At 1 a.m., he woke up again. And again at 3. And again at 5, when he woke up for good. Each time, he was immune to the many parenting tricks we’d try to calm him down. At one point, Stef turned to me in the dark tent: “Do people really do this?” she asked.
It was a question borne of frustration and helplessness: Ultimately, none of us got any meaningful sleep. But it also hinted at something deeper: Why had we subjected ourselves to a night in which either of our sons might feel out of sorts or uncomfortable? Were we bad parents? Or, at the very least, had we made a bad decision? The former, we hoped, was not true. The latter, sadly, was clearly right on.
There’s a cliché in sports: You don’t learn anything from winning all the time. The same might be said about our outing. Early the next morning, as the sun rose and warmed our campsite, Stef told me she’d witnessed a moment of grace the previous evening that perhaps wouldn’t have happened had we not embarked on our adventure. Sebastian had told his final bedtime story, and then he whispered to Leo, “It’s OK, Leo, I’m right here next to you. I love you. Do you want me to hold your hand?” Four-year-old Sebastian was “roughing it” for the first time, and he had become party to an impossibly difficult situation. Instead of getting frustrated, though—as his parents did that night—he wanted to help. He wanted to be a big brother. “You’re a good boy,” Leo said back. And then, before they fell asleep for a short time, Sebastian said, finally, “You’re a good Leo.”