Wilderness Adventures

Disconnecting (For Parents!)

By Tom Holland December 5, 2023
Colorful sunset over the shoreline of Alaska.

My high school daughter is on day 15 of a 21-day Wilderness Adventures trip. She is in Alaska. As the guy who coordinates the entire WA operation, I could easily call her Trip Leaders, have them put her on the phone and find out how she is doing. As a parent who loves my kid, I always want to make this call. I keep close tabs on all WA trips and all WA students, except my own child. I do this out of respect for her, her Trip Leaders and all the parents who must endure the same challenge when they let their kids adventure with us. 

Two girls sitting in front of a sign in the forest that says Flower Mountain.

I have to admit, it is one of my biggest challenges of the summer. My daughter has now spent 6 summers with WA, and even in this 6th year, I never get used to being disconnected from her. Each year, when she boards that plane and heads out for a grand adventure in some wonderful place, I feel disoriented and I am a mess for the duration of the trip, longing to get a text or voicemail from her just to see how she is doing. 

And so, on Day 15, as I think of her, I send her some form of communication (whether it be a text message or a voicemail), that I know she will not receive until the end of her trip. I text her ‘I love you and I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you soon.’ Then I do something absurd. Even though I know we are device free at WA, I look at my tracking app to see if I can see where she (or her phone) is on the planet. And alas, it says she checked in last in Anchorage 15 days ago. 

Gosh, it is hard to be disconnected from your child. 

I have always felt lucky to have been raised in a time when cell phones did not exist. I have often thought about this from the perspective of a child. About how young Tom Holland did not have to post to social media as a high schooler. I did not have to obey some unwritten rules on Snapchat about when I should post something or how I might look on my BeReal. Those were not concerns of mine in my formative years and I feel lucky for it. I have often thought that our trips today act as a magical escape for kids, so that they can re-engage with other kids their age without this powerful influence of their cell phones. It’s timeless and a throwback to a time long since passed. Here they can learn to have confidence that is not connected to their phones. 

However, now with 4 children of my own, and 2 having cell phones, I am beginning to think more and more about my own parents. For so long, I thought about the influence of phones in my kids (and all kids) lives and how my perspective is shaped from my own childhood experience without phones. But in this moment of wanting to just get in touch with my kid via cellphone, I think not of me as a kid, but I think of my own parents. Back then, when cell phones did not exist, how did our parents manage? Sure, I remember checking in with them from my friend’s home on a landline, and yes, I can vaguely remember making a plan for my weekends where I had to let my parents know when and where I would be in certain spots around town. To think back, it is clear they had a lot of trust in me, and in the world around me.

Group of backpackers doing silly poses.

In my youth without cell phones, how many puzzles did I solve in my adventures outside of the watchful eye of my parents that informed my decision making for the future? How many challenges did I overcome that gave me a solid foundation and confidence to enter the world without them? 

Today, I wonder if we water down our children’s ability to make decisions on their own by answering every question via phone call or text when they hit a fork in the road. Our devices and our connection to them gives us the opportunity to solve all problems for our kids at the click of the button. Team decision making is how we do it in the parent-child relationship of 2023. But when I do this, I wonder if I am taking away my kids’ ability to think critically on their own using the impressive brains we know they have.

I write all of this because there is some catharsis letting it out – I think WA’s ‘no electronic devices’ rule is superb for the child on our program but, I am finding that it is equally healthy for parents. 

That girl of mine is going to be in college in less than 2 years. When she heads out on that grand adventure of life, out from under the watchful eye of mom and dad, she will need the freedom to make choices on her own (for her sake and for ours as parents). She must believe in herself enough to make decisions without calling us. On the other hand, we as parents need to trust her to make those decisions on her own.

In the end, maybe as parents of kids on WA trips or at programs or camps like WA, we need this disconnection from our children just as much as they need it themselves. 

And so there I waited, longing for the next picture update, counting down the days until I saw her name pop up on my phone, when I could hear her voice again sharing with me the adventures she has had. I know she will have grown because I am not there adding my two cents in a text at every fork in the road. 

It’s not easy. But I do trust her. And I trust those she is with. While the world of parenting has changed so much since I was a kid, maybe that part – the trust – has stayed the same.