I was afraid this day would come. If I’m honest, I had known in my gut this was stirring, but I held out hope that surely it couldn’t be true. Thinking back on my 10 year-old self, I would have LOVED the chance for someone to take me hunting. I was an outdoors kid in a non-outdoors family, and ever since my little ones were babies, I was determined that they were going to have the wild, outdoors childhood I wished I could have had.
As my oldest son neared his 10th birthday (the minimum age for hunting big game in AZ), I was beside myself with excitement. We went through our hunter safety course, got him familiar with his rifle, and got him set up so that he’d be sitting on his first tag for javelina just a couple weeks after his birthday…it was going to be magic! Sadly, this year’s javelina season was marked by an unexpected winter storm, some personal family scheduling issues, and a handful of other obstacles that made it so we could only get out for one day. We didn’t see any pigs, and the curtain closed on that first tag.
But, there was still hope for his first season as a hunter - he had also drawn a youth turkey tag for April, and we were all set to spend a full weekend out chasing some thunder-chickens. The week of the hunt, I realized that I had been getting things in order, but hadn’t talked to him about it much. I reminded him that we were turkey hunting this upcoming weekend, and I could see his face turn. He was searching for the words, but every parent knows that face when your kid is wearing their unfiltered feelings right there for the world to see…he didn’t want to go. Fearing the answer, I asked him: “buddy, do you even like hunting? It’s okay, just tell me the truth.” Even though I knew it was coming, it still stung like a hot knife in my back: “No, dad…I hate hunting! It’s so boring! We have to walk a million miles carrying heavy stuff, and we usually don’t even see anything. I hate it!”
The ball’s in your court, Dad…what do you do with that one? Torn between the desire to build some much-needed grit into your kid and the knowledge that pushing him into something he doesn’t want will potentially drive him farther away, what’s the right call? In that moment, I let him off the hook. Forcing him into a weekend of turkey hunting was not worth the risk of turning him away from the sport for the rest of his life, so we didn’t go. I reassured him that I’m not disappointed in him (that “in him” is a very important part of that statement…without it, I’d be lying), that he can be into whatever he wants to be into and I’ll support him. The one mandate is that he will have to be a part of something that takes place outside, is active, and does not involve a screen. If he’d rather focus on football, music, taking my stuff apart in the garage without permission…that’s fine. He just can’t use “hating hunting” as an excuse for making sure he has access to wifi at all times.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, or you haven’t arrived at this stage yet but you have all the same hopes and dreams of bonding with your kids in the great outdoors, here are a few observations/lessons I’ve pulled from this experience. This is still very fresh for me, and I’m sure a few years down the road I’ll have more insight as I work through this with my oldest and my other children reach hunting age. Either way, for what it’s worth, here’s what I got…
Forcing your kid to hunt when he doesn’t want to will probably backfire.
Sure, there’s the slim chance that he’ll be out there all pouty-faced and missing his iPod, an animal will walk by, he’ll get all excited, shoot it, feel the exhilaration and accomplishment, and be hooked for life. It could conceivably happen. Statistically speaking, it won’t. You’re more likely to get frustrated, argue with him, not get a shot opportunity, and have him say, “see, this is pointless and boring.” Now, not only are you not bringing a young hunter into the fold, but you’re actually driving a wedge in your relationship.
Perhaps you can remember some major “I’m not you, Dad, so let me live my life!” moment from your childhood. I know I had it! I remember getting in yelling matches with my father about how I didn’t want to be a computer engineer like him…I wanted to be a musician! (What part of that plan could he possibly object to?) To be honest, that was where our conversation ended up…we started having a conversation about how I wanted to pierce my ears, and somehow, we followed it down that rabbit-hole. The point is, kids typically resent the feeling that they are being forced into some mold, and trying to make your kid a hunter when he doesn’t want to be will most likely trigger that.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am in no way a “don’t ever let your kids be uncomfortable/let them be the special little snowflakes they are” kind of father. No! I want my kids to be resilient, to have grit, to learn that they can push through tough things and come out stronger on the other side. However, I’ve learned over the years that there is a very fine line between helping your kids get stronger, and pushing them into a father-child complex befitting every 80s teen movie ever made. Now, if you’re thinking I’m too soft on the matter and should have just forced him to go (it’s okay, I question myself on that sometimes too), consider my next point…
A “no” now doesn’t necessarily mean “no” forever.
Most people wouldn’t freak out on a 10 year-old for saying they hate 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, or working an 8-hour day doing data-entry in a cubicle…that would be the normal response for a kid (although, now that I think of it, that would be my response to both of those as well). The point is that hunting is an extremely difficult endeavor that requires a great deal of patience, and often long periods of sitting still…two things kids are not known for. If your kid isn’t interested in hunting right now, it might be that he’ll think differently in just a few years as he matures a bit.
I’m learning that 10, in particular, is a weird age. They’re starting to look older and they’re driven to be independent, so it’s tempting to think of them more like teenagers. (In my case, my son is also freakishly tall, making him look physically like most of the Jr. Highers I know). However, from a human development standpoint, they are still locked firmly in kid-brain. I’ll keep him engaged in the outdoors in other ways, and perhaps as he starts to enter a new phase of life, he’ll be ready to give hunting another try.
Pick a hunt that promises a good chance of success.
This is where I dropped the ball as my oldest was growing up. The first hunt I ever let him tag along for was for bear, one of the hardest game animals to track down. I then took him quail hunting…during one of the worst quail seasons in recent AZ history. After that, the deer hunt with my wife and I where we spent three days glassing up one group of does, hiked rougher terrain than he was ready for, and he got sick. The last straw was the failed javelina hunt where I didn’t put in enough pre-season work and couldn’t get him in front of some pigs. That’s four experiences in a row with a lot of work and very little action…not exactly a recipe for sparking enthusiasm in a young man.
Obviously, there are no guarantees with any hunt, but there are ones with better chances of getting into some animals and letting the kid get a taste for the excitement that keeps us all coming back year after year. If you’re an experienced hunter with a couple of honey-holes up your sleeve, consider waiting to bring your kid into the field until you can get them a tag in that unit. If you tend to skimp on pre-season scouting (something I’m guilty of more often than I want to admit), your kid’s hunt is not the time to phone it in. Whatever you have to do, don’t risk squashing your young child’s interest in hunting by burning his first experiences on boring, failed hunts.
Force your kids to get outdoors anyway.
There are plenty of other ways to enjoy the outdoors that are easier on a kid than hunting. Just because my son currently hates hunting, doesn’t mean he’s off the hook for family hikes, camping, target shooting, or any number of related activities. Whether this kid ever hunts again, I can guarantee he’ll grow up with memories of the outdoors and at least basic woodsmanship skills. And, if he does take an interest in a couple years, he’ll at least be somewhat comfortable in the woods already.
Furthermore, despite everything I’ve said about backing off and letting him tell me when he thinks he’s ready, I will keep putting him in the draw for one particular hunt. There is a youth cow elk tag he can draw in a unit that is very familiar to me. I know that I can hike him in less than a mile, set him up in a blind, and almost guarantee that he’ll get a shot opportunity. I won’t force him into any other hunts, no multi-day backcountry excursions, but if he draws this tag, I will make him give it a try. There’s a cabin we can stay in, other family members can be involved, and I’ll even ease him in by letting him do a morning and evening hunt and taking a mid-day break (which I typically don’t do on my own hunts).
Listen, if he said he hated hunting because he doesn’t want to shoot an animal or had seen Bambi too many times, it would be a different story. But since his objections are boredom and effort, in certain specific situations, I will push him because it’s good for him. I think the bottom line is accurately accounting for his age, physical and mental abilities, and just being smart about it. My 10 year-old is not going to hunt the way I do, and I need to build the hunting experience around him, not around turning him into me.
Wrapping it Up
Whether you have a kid who’s reluctant to hunt, or one who is beyond excited about it, I believe the advice above will help both of you have the best experience possible. When I first started taking my oldest out, he was really enthusiastic about it. Unfortunately, I did a few things wrong and didn’t give him a great first couple experiences. I think with a little time away from it and the right tag opportunity in the future, he could still develop a love for the sport. And, if he doesn’t, his little brother (who’s only 6) is desperately waiting for when he gets to go.
As all parents of multiple kids know, they each arrive in this world completely different. Same genetics, same household, and they can still be polar opposites. Some kids will be wired to crave the outdoors, and some will be more homebodies. The most important thing in all of this is to not make it about you. Being unwilling to adjust your dreams of these magnificent hunts with your child that are so perfect and serene they should be captured in a Norman Rockwell painting will drive you to push your kid…probably harder than you should. Accept that your kid is who they are, and walk that fine line that will push them to grow and be tougher without pushing them so hard that they resent it.
Listen, I am right in the middle of this parenting journey, and I’ll never pretend to have it all figured out. These are just a few things I’ve been figuring out (mostly through my own mistakes), and I hope something in here can help some other dad out there trying to get his son into the same hunting lifestyle that has brought him so much joy. All we can do is love our kids unconditionally, give them opportunities to explore and try new things, and take joy in the young man or woman they are becoming. At the end of the day, I’d rather have an adult son who doesn’t hunt but has a close relationship with me than to try and force him to be a hunter and end up with an adult son who doesn’t hunt and doesn’t call me.