Seeking walking advice for disgruntled small children
June 12, 2019 8:54 PM   Subscribe

I live in a lovely, walkable neighborhood with tons of stuff within a half-mile radius: a library, grocery stores, fun parks, wading pools, pet food stores, lakes, etc. My 6-year-old thinks that walking places is a special kind of torture I have designed especially for him. Please tell me how you get your children to willingly leave the house and walk places with you.

We do a bike commute to school/work with a tag-along bike, which usually results in many complaints on our way out the door but constant singing during the actual ride. My kid definitely prefers biking to walking, but he loves the car most of all. When I can convince him to leave the house with me on foot, there is usually much complaining before and during our walks. His usual complaints are that walking makes him too tired and wastes his time. The dude can participate in hours-long dance parties, so physical stamina is not the issue. What am I doing wrong? Winter is finally over, and I desperately miss the ease of neighborhood walks with the stroller. Do parents in walking-oriented cities also have complaint-filled children who would rather stay home than walk somewhere fun?
posted by Maarika to Human Relations (37 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you play Pokemon Go? We recently intro duced our four and six year old to it and now they beg to walk everywhere. Even to Grandma's house (12 miles away).

They also do Free Forest School one day a week, which almost entirely cut down the requests to be carried. It's child-led wilderness exploration, and it has bled over into many other things.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:05 PM on June 12, 2019 [14 favorites]

it's tough at that age because you can't really let them run freely either (or at least I didn't, I always worried about cars backing out of driveways.) I feel you.

Would games help? We sometimes play I Spy when walking; or we "make rainbows" with flowers in yards -- you have to spot a red, then an orange, then a yellow etc...
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:10 PM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Scooters do the trick for my grandkids.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:17 PM on June 12, 2019 [19 favorites]

My kid will be 6 next month and he doesn't like to walk, either. Tonight I had a thing and asked him and my spouse to take the dog for a walk for me while I was gone. Pokemon Go was used to help sweeten the deal. The dog did get walked!

This was a rare occurrence. And, honestly, I got the dog so that I *would* have someone willing to go for walks with me, cuz otherwise it was a fight.

But, he is in school or daycare all day 5 days a week and has to do stuff they tell him to, so I let it go on evenings and weekends. I figure he should be allowed to have free time doing what he wants to do.
posted by jillithd at 9:23 PM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

When mine was 6, we had a long walk to school and her legs tired easily. Here is what worked best:
1. Stories we told each other, each taking turns to build up the story, but the game was incorporating things we saw on the way -- very silly and funny
2. Every time she stomped on one of those small round metal pipe covers on the sidewalk (or it could be a sidewalk line, or whatever) she would get points. She would run up to the next one and stomp on it for points. A lot of ground got covered more quickly.
3. Pretending we were suddenly imported from The Olden Days -- we called it "olden days mix up". "What is that strange carriage driving without a horse?" "Why is that lady getting inside a giant rolling thing?" "Why are all these people not wearing long skirts?" etc etc. Because the child is six, they can say this about and bus and etc.
posted by nantucket at 9:27 PM on June 12, 2019 [28 favorites]

You have to remember that since his legs are probably half the length of yours, to cover the same distance with you, he actually has to “walk” about twice as much as you do.

Imagine if someone wanted to go on a walk with you, but insisted you wear a heavy backpack (or something that made the walk twice as tiring for you). I bet you wouldn’t find it too tempting.

Make your walks easier for him—a scooter—so that he can enjoy them.
posted by blueberry at 9:36 PM on June 12, 2019 [11 favorites]

First, consider who he might be hearing complain about [any] walking... and then put a stop to it.

Second, check his shoes and make sure they're appropriate for walking.

Third, gamify it. Storytelling, I Spy, A-Z, 20 questions... if you need ideas, one way to think about it, is if you can play it in the car without supplies, you can play it walking.

Last but not least... seriously, shut down whoever he's hearing complain. It's awful enough to put up with adults that whine or complain, the last thing you want to do is raise a complainer child. The mother of my children's half-sister is one of those, and good grief, does she grate on the nerves.
After some regular exposure, my daughter started picking it up - and oddly enough, she was about your son's age at the time. I seriously shut it down HARD with my daughter - it was explained why it was inappropriate behavior, with some discussion about that specific adult, and then it was called out immediately if it happened. It just plain is NOT something that I'm willing to tolerate. ("I'm bored" and complaining/whining are pretty much hard NOs from me... at again, around that same age, my daughter actually asked me why her cousin was "talking funny" - she'd had almost no exposure to whining at that point, which is one hell of a good way to make sure kids don't pick up that bad habit.)
posted by stormyteal at 9:38 PM on June 12, 2019 [16 favorites]

I think gamifying/goalifying it is a good idea — with two sides to the coin, i.e. reach 3,000 steps or whatever and you get a bonus (something at the store, an extra buck on the allowance) but fail to walk enough and you get docked, or you have to do some extra chore instead like doing the dishes.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:14 PM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

We gave our children a lot of voice in what they did. However, with something like this, we would not ask, "Do you want to walk to the store with Daddy?" We would say to them, "We are walking to the store. We leave in 2 minutes. Saddle up." We would ignore the complaining if there was any. Life is hard. Sometimes you must do things you do not want to. We did not threaten or bribe. No carrot or stick. Just part of being in the family was walking to the store today with Pops.
posted by AugustWest at 10:21 PM on June 12, 2019 [36 favorites]

Whining sometimes happens when there’s a power struggle where they feel they might get out of the uncomfortable experience once they finally ‘win’ your attention. Ignoring it makes it worse, IME, and so does telling them nor to whine.

Give them your attention right away. validate, say yeah I know you find this boring but that’s how we get to the library. I hear your feet are heavy, but that’s how we get to the library. Repeat. Repeat. They get bored of it.

The key is: validate emotions, but stay strict and matter of fact regarding what needs to be done (=walking).

I find the idea that they’d have to suppress any and all complaints fairly off-putting. They do need to learn how to express them in a socially acceptable way, like ‘oh, wow, this feels like a long walk mom.’ They get to that point by being validated in their negative emotions and supported in their ability to get through them.

I know this sounds super touchy feely but punishing kids for complaining is just going to lead to kids who don’t open up to you about negative emotions. A fairly scary thought once kiddo is a teenager?

Also: routines help a lot with this. Using the car sometimes and walking at others is hard for little brains to understand, so try to find consistency.
posted by The Toad at 10:25 PM on June 12, 2019 [46 favorites]

According to this FPP article about "osteobiography" walking is the only kind of exercise which will help his elbows grow big and strong.
posted by XMLicious at 10:36 PM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Check his feet, my son at that age refused to walk and as it turned out he had a tiny wood splinter in the space where the toe comes out of the foot, hidden by the curling of the toe. By the time we found it skin had grown over it and looked like a wart. The pediatric dermatologist we saw recognized what it was and was able to get it out and when went out the office my son laughed with delight, he could walk without discomfort.
He had actually complaned about pain in the leg, and i realised that he had walked funny to avoid putting weight on the toe.
posted by 15L06 at 12:11 AM on June 13, 2019 [11 favorites]

Go by yourself, then be sure to tell him that you stopped for ice cream on your way home.
posted by Cranberry at 12:54 AM on June 13, 2019 [16 favorites]

My four-year-old grandson has literally stopped walking on the way home from my place complaining that he is too tired. And he *is* tired. But after he rests a bit, I do what others have suggested, I make it a game. Sometimes the game is a running contest: Who can make it to that tree first (never me, that's for damn sure)? Sometimes the game is observational: How many different colors can we find? (Or different shades of green or different birds or whatever.)

What makes any outing more likely with this kid is 1. It is optional (wanna walk to my place? wanna go to the playground? wanna X?) except when it's not (time to go to the library). 2. Letting him walk in stops and starts. Lots of adults (not necessarily you, OP) walk completely focused on the goal of arriving at their destination, and usually they want to get their quickly. That sucks for many children and, certainly, for this particular adult. So when he finds something interesting, he stops and I stop with him. If I see something I think will interest him (ants working together to drag away a dead insect, say, or construction machines, or a cat, or interesting cloud formations) I point them out and we discuss them.

I am hoping he gets a scooter soon because he can't ride his bike yet and there are long walks that just tucker him out. Recently the family celebrated a holiday at a place that required a roughly 2 kilometer (1.2 mile maybe) walk from the bus stop. That is a long way for a little kid. His baby sister was in a stroller but the ride-along attachment was at home. So we got through it with lots of rest stops and me and his mom taking turns racing with him to beat the rest of us.

It's a really good question, OP. My kid hated to walk. My partner and I carried her and kept her in a stroller and/or kid carrier for way too long. She was not much of a walker at 6. But she is a major walker as a young adult and she is raising her kids, as they get older, to be walkers as well. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:56 AM on June 13, 2019 [7 favorites]

Do take them to a podiatrist to get checked out.

I complained A LOT about walking as a child [my feet hurt, my ankles hurt] and was told to shut up and stop whinging;

and I found out as an adult that I needed custom-made Orthotic inserts;

and I now have permanent ankle damage and knee damage from not getting them when I first needed them as a child.
posted by Murderbot at 2:30 AM on June 13, 2019 [10 favorites]

Can you give him some choice over the route? Like choosing between two parallel streets and seeing whether he prefers the one with more trees or the one with more houses, for example.

Obviously if it's just a straight line walk, that's not possible, but most other walking paths have more than one route available.
posted by ambrosen at 3:41 AM on June 13, 2019

Oh walking is not a lot of fun for a lot of kids. (A lot of adults don't think it's very fun either.) We don't have a car, and my kids still complain about walking. (And they do all sorts of outdoorsy stuff, and go to Forest School, etc. so it's not just that.) But scooters? Balance bikes? Regular bikes? They run to the door. RUN! If you're not committed to just walking, a good micro Scooter will make a huge difference to your life.
posted by EtTuHealy at 3:45 AM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Are you walking at a really fast pace? My kid will walk at a much slower happier pace with me where she gets to poke at interesting things on the sidewalk and jump up and down on bollards etc. I like a brisk pace but can't if she is with me. If it's hot outside get them a wide-brimmed sunhat for shade, makes a noticeable difference for even short walks.

When we're walking back and we're really exhausted, we count down from 100. I pace it out so that by the time we get to the last 10 we are within sight of our place. It makes it a lot easier to keep trudging on. Sometimes we just put our stuff down and sprawl on the sidewalk grass and take a break or grab an iced drink from a nearby place.

I'm with Bella Donna - short stops and gos work better with kids. Scooters defeat the point of walking together I think.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:22 AM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Agree with gamify as per everyone else.

More stupid game ideas: statue. The kid runs ahead, pretends to be a statue. As you approach you say "Look at that funny statue. What a strange statue, I wonder who put that there? I've never seen anything like that before." When you arrive at the "statue" you poke it until it moves and collapses in laughter. It then runs ahead again to be another statue. Repeat for kilometres or until your brain can't take it anymore.

I am a very deluded parent game: point at a lamppost and say "What an amazing tree. I've never seen a tree like that before." Kid argues it is a lamppost. You argue it is a tree. Silliness continues for kilometres as a car becomes an elephant, the road becomes a river etc etc.

The most amazing thing on this block game: What is the one thing on this block you think is most interesting? Each of you picks and explains why. Could be anything, a bug, flower, weird house colour, strange building, bizarre smell, interesting font choice on a sign. Repeat each block.

Also, there is hope. My older kids will now happily hike with us for hours as long as there are consistant snacks provided.
posted by Cuke at 4:33 AM on June 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

I don’t think there’s anything to do but suffer through the complaining until it stops — it might be a few months, but at some point if walking to neighborhood destinations is a norm, the kid will get accustomed to it. On the other hand, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a city-dweller with no car, so I had my difficult years with my kids when they were 2-3, and by around four they were pretty much ordinary competent pedestrians. There was literally no alternative for getting around to neighborhood destinations, so the kids accepted it fine.

Something that I’m guessing makes it harder for you is that you could drive, and maybe sometimes do, to the walkable destinations? Kids can be very determined negotiatiors if there’s a chance they’re going to get what they want. If you can invest a couple of months of being completely inflexible about never driving to places where you could walk, it might help.
posted by LizardBreath at 4:35 AM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do take them to a podiatrist to get checked out.

I complained A LOT about walking as a child [my feet hurt, my ankles hurt] and was told to shut up and stop whinging;

This was me also. Was in the Scouts, loved it, but absolutely hated going for long hikes because my feet would hurt monstrously and then ache for days after. Got told to stop whining, nobody else's feet hurt so I was just complaining for attention, etc, etc, etc.

And then many many years later I got a job in a shop and was on my feet all day and my feet would not stop hurting, and I could not get used to it and in fact it kept getting worse, and so I went to a podiatrist. Turns out if I'm doing any extended walking or standing I need shoes with proper arch support or orthotics, otherwise I get plantar fasciitis. (To the point that I've been outright warned against taking any more jobs that require standing all day, because I might end up permanently disabling myself.)

So yeah, get his feet checked, just in case.

Otherwise, I second what everyone else said about gamifying the walks, either via Pokemon Go or whatever else. I'm a grown-ass adult and I still hate going for walks just for the sake of walking. I will walk all day around a city seeing museums or fun stuff, but I wouldn't go on one of those holidays where you're in the mountains or something and all you do is walk around the same paths every day, even if you paid me to. (Distinct from a walking holiday where you see new stuff every day, etc.)
posted by sailoreagle at 5:43 AM on June 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

Great advice above. I would only add – does he know WHY you're going on walks, like that there's an awesome destination in mind or only that you need to walk there? My five-year-old would also balk at walking for the purpose of completing boring errands or whatever but we have decent success as framing something as "we're going on a grocery store ADVENTURE!" You wouldn't think something fun like the lake or pool or library would NEED to be framed as an ADVENTURE for a kid's sake but it does get her way more hyped up to go.
posted by anderjen at 5:48 AM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

It may just be that your kid realizes that walking is something that you find important and care about and is rebelling because of this. I think kids are geniuses when it comes to identifying what their parents want and subtly working against it. I also feel like this is because kids have so little agency and power and control in their lives and they sometimes just want to have an impact on something that is important to their parents.

If you think this might be the case, it might be worth thinking about how you can work with this thought. Can you deemphasize how important walking is for you? Can you focus on the destination? Can you remove the possibility and the idea that there is any choice surrounding how you travel?

Also, kids walk at such different speed than adults. Part of it is because they have smaller legs and aren’t as strong, but it is mostly because they are so much less interested in the destination and so much more interested in whatever they find along the way, regardless if it is a construction site, some pretty stones, a wall you can walk along, some dandelions, pets you pass and a million other things. Can you slow way way down?
posted by jazh at 6:13 AM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Pebbles to drop in storm drains kept my guys very happy. One or two in each drain on the way. They loved to hear them plop and would race to the next one. Stopped the complaining with no nagging on my part.
posted by Enid Lareg at 6:26 AM on June 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

This year we have discovered Going Places on bikes. Micropanda (8) rides his 20" bike, Nanopanda (5) rides on a tagalong bike behind me. We have been mostly riding to baseball games and practices, and they are SUPER STOKED about it (despite being whiny walkers.)

Values that we have discussed on an ongoing basis that helped:
- Active transport is good for the earth, because it means our car is burning less gasoline. (Micropanda got more on board with this after they talked about it at school.)
- Active transport is healthy for your body because it makes your muscles stronger. Also, did you know that exercise helps make your brain stronger and healthier and helps it learn more things?
- Mom especially enjoys bike rides with everyone and so when they join me, it makes me happy and improves my day
- Doing things together is fun and we are all happy when we ride bikes together
- When Micropanda gets bigger he will be able to go places on his own using his bike, and extra practice navigating our town now will make that day come sooner and be safer. (Nanopanda too, obvs, but it's less of a motivator for her right now.)
posted by telepanda at 6:57 AM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

You don't need to gamify the walks, you just need to make them nicer. Sometimes life is about the journey not the destination. This is the time the two of you talk, that you listen to what they have to say about their life instead of telling. When you stop to study the ants on the pavement & the dandelion growing out of the sidewalk. When you tell him a story about the first time you saw a Blue Jay & look there is one there. Walk at his pace, enter his world, hang out with him for a while, then when you get to the place, OH let's stop & get a coffee you can have a fancy babychino. Slow down enjoy the journey don't just see the walk as getting from point A to point B.

Also get his feet checked out & get him some good comfortable special walking shoes/sandals. Kids feet change super fast as they're growing up & as someone with shitty feet I love walking because my mother used to do the above things with me, but it really hurts if I don't have the right shoes.
posted by wwax at 7:32 AM on June 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

My friend's 6 year old daughter has a kid-centric fitbit type device that she loves. Not sure if it's actually a fitbit or a knockoff (the fitbit ace 2 looks similar to what i'm remembering), but she loves getting her steps in now. Gamification works.
posted by cgg at 7:37 AM on June 13, 2019

Ask him what it is he doesn't like about walking, and listen. Kids deserve to be taken seriously that way. Address anything fixable. Boring can be addressed with a plant/ insect/ bird guide, or learning to identify types of cars, or collecting license plates from various states, or with all the letters in the alphabet/ numbers up to 100, etc. Sing. Talk about your days.

Whining is unpleasant and the only way to address it is to resolutely ignore it, and to do some distracting. Yes, I understand walking is not your jam. Look, a license plate from Idaho. Not many of those in our town. I wonder what their story is. or Yes, you don't like walking. I've heard you. Walking is a thing we are going to do, so finding ways to enjoy it makes sense to me or Yep. It's a Learning Life Skills thing. It can be torture hear it, but attention to whining reinforces it, and echhhh.

Reward the walk. We're here, nice work, ace. Use an app on your phone to count steps. Look, we did X steps, way to go. Even small rewards like minor praise build pride. Next day, I wonder how many steps we can do today? Wearable step counters are inexpensive.

People I know who learned to manage unpleasantness, and who learned to walk places, seem better able to manage in the world in many ways.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 AM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

A mini clipboard with a pencil tied to it was a great tool that my kid’s outdoor nature preschool used for hike day for some of the reluctant walkers. Sometimes the teacher would draw little pics of things to find on the walk scavenger hunt style, sometimes they were asked to draw what they see, sometimes they were collecting leaves or flowers in the clip, sometimes they were tallying hoe many of a certain something they could see. Sometimes they were making a map of the hike. It was pretty adaptable in the moment and over time. Kid is 6.5 now and he asks me to take a clipboard on walks sometimes. His first field trip of Kindergarten was a walking trip to and through the farmer’s market looking for upper and lower case letters of the alphabet. Each kid had a clipboard and they LOVED that field trip. The second graders did a similar trip at the end of the year, walking through our whole small town stopping at different places with their clipboard and their scavenger hunt tasks.
posted by Swisstine at 8:29 AM on June 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

I live in NYC, and in a lot of places here it's actually more common to see a kid that age on a kick scooter than not. (The stereotypes are true, New Yorkers do walk really fast, and the scooters make it possible for kids to keep up with their parents.) As long as the kids are taught how to use them respectfully and safely - ie, as long as they don't zoom half a block ahead of you into moving traffic - they now seem to me like a seamless part of how families get around the city, no weirder than a stroller.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:30 AM on June 13, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the great ideas and diverse perspectives! I’ve talked to my son about what he doesn’t like about walking, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he’d rather stay home and play than walk somewhere to do X. He can do the math: a half hour at the library + a half hour walking is less enjoyable overall than an hour of board games at home. For errands that need to happen, sometimes it’s more enjoyable for me to just leave him at home with dad and walk by myself. However, I see people walking as a family, and it’s something I want, too!

Other follow-up thoughts: license plates were a DEEP obsession from ages 3-4, now replaced by street names and maps. Our main distraction theme now is naming the sidewalks/alleys and imagining where they end/connect, but sometimes that is not enough to keep him going. We use my car for most errands during the winter (because Minnesota), and he misses the GPS maps and stereo. He is his own stereo on the tag-along bike (this morning he made up a song about the Arctic Circle on our way to school), but for some reason that doesn’t happen on foot. I do not want to introduce screen time to tackle this, plus he thinks his classmates’ conversations about Pokémon are boring (he’d much rather talk about train routes on Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries). As for shoes, he lives in Keen sneakers and sandals and has zero complaints about footwear or foot discomfort. I had really good success on a walk earlier this week by letting him use his own umbrella. He isn’t a confident scooter rider, but that’s something to work on! He would probably love a mini clipboard, especially if I attached a calculator to it.

Thanks again for all your thoughts and ideas, keep them coming!
posted by Maarika at 9:44 AM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm with the folks who advocate presenting walking in and of itself as not-a-choice, but then allowing as much choice as possible within that framework. More than 20 years later I remember being totally impressed by my aunt who very calmly said to her whiny child, "Do you want to walk in the shady part or the sunny part?" and it worked. So, wherever you can see variants for choice within the walk, offer them up!

Also--from what you're saying about the maps and the calculator, maybe you could give him a pedometer? Can you do estimates of steps to get from point a to point b and see what the reality is? Variance between routes? Are their differences between his steps and yours, given your size difference? That sounds like the kind of thing a kid like this might dig.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:19 AM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

If he doesn't like the scooter -- is it a good model? We had a cheap scooter and our kiddo could NOT do it. It was strange how well everyone else could scoot and he could NOT (but was good at other physical activities). We upgraded at Christmas -- first day, easy peasy, no problem at all. I would not cheap out on it.
posted by caoimhe at 10:23 AM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

My almost 5-year-old son will complain about walking at times. More with his mother because she's much more likely to pick him up and carry him. Now that the weather's better we've been doing nature walks and that seems to have cut down on his complaints about walking at other times. When we are walking I do my best to point out different things I see, whether it's some nice flowers or just birds flying around. When he's in the mood he'll spend most of the time asking me questions about whatever he's thinking about, of late it's been a lot of "who would win in a fight ..... or .....?" which will generally require a bit of thought and explanation from me unless one of the options is One Punch Man (or "One Punch" as he says) because One Punch Man will always win.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:05 AM on June 13, 2019

Can you "go exploring" on your walks? Don't just talk about those alleys, walk down them!! I remember doing that with my dad and loving it. It felt a little bit secret and exciting, because you don't see many alleys up close except for ones by your house.
posted by purple_bird at 1:13 PM on June 13, 2019

Take his fascination with routes farther - this might be a little much for a six year old, but get the kid a compass and teach him how to use it and start noting cardinal directions as you walk. Then when he gets older and bored of that, get a regular paper grid map of your neighborhood, mark your house and library and the grocery store on it, and let him trace the route and mark points of interest (house with the cute dog, etc.) on a clip board as you walk. Do that for a year and maybe he will be ready to wayfind and give him a challenge of coming up with a new way to get to the grocery store with his compass and map. Reading a map and knowing cardinal directions are great life skills if he finds them fun
posted by slow graffiti at 2:57 PM on June 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: OK, MetaFilter, my husband downloaded Pokemon Go, and this issue is totally resolved. Turns out that an entire summer camp full of kids talking about Pokémon converted my kid, and now he is obsessed, even though we don’t understand how Pokemon gyms work.
posted by Maarika at 10:58 AM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

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