How to get kids to do hard things

This has been my summer to get kids to do hard things.

I came up with the idea to give ourselves a challenge: hike every peak in Acadia National Park. I got everyone in my family to agree that it would be a good stretch summer goal. Then I looked up a list of peaks.

This was the wrong way to do things.

I had thought there would be about 14 peaks or so. There aren’t. There are 31.


I could have backed it down. I could have said, “We just meant mountains, right? Not all peaks?” And everyone likely would have agreed.

But I didn’t. We can do hard things, I argued with myself. We will feel so proud of ourselves.

So we’re doing it. Even though completing this task will require our kids to hike much longer, harder, and more consistently that we’ve ever asked of them before. To date, we’ve done hikes in the rain and hikes in the heat, we’ve hiked multiple peaks at a time, and we’ve hiked some of the most challenging trails that Acadia has to offer.

I’ve learned some things about how to get kids to do hard things along the way. Here are my strategies.

Sell it

I never tell my kids we are “going for a hike.” I tell them we are going on an adventure.  I tell them we are going to explore. In the case of a three peak hike, I told them we were going on an unbelievable, slightly crazy, outdoor EXTRAVAGANZA. 

Overselling it? Maybe. But why not start it out by getting everyone pumped up? So far they are biting on this technique.

Get kids to do hard things

Tempt them

What’s your kid’s currency?

Snacks? Pack lots of their favorite: cheese and crackers, mixed nuts, granola bars, the good trail mix with chocolate in it.

Fun? Plan a swim after…or during. Stop by their favorite playground as a reward. Promise a program at the library.

Video games? For each mile they do without complaint, they get 10 minutes of game time.

Hey, I’m not here to judge. Whatever keeps them moving up the trail.

And ice cream all around at the end, of course. Hopefully that’s a given.

Let it be hard

You can’t feel accomplished if things are always easy. Part of using the outdoors to develop character means that sometimes? Things need to be hard. On almost every hike we’ve had falls, minor injuries, some tense moments, and quite a bit of exhaustion. That’s okay. We take a moment to regroup and encourage, and then we continue on.

And sometimes, we have to let them fail. This past weekend we’d planned a hike for two connected peaks, but it just wasn’t happening. The kids were feeling tired and whiny after the first, so we bagged it and headed back. About halfway down the mountain my son turned to me and said, “I actually really wish we’d done the second one.” I could tell that giving up was really bothering him.

I bet I won’t have to let them fail a second time.


Ice cream! A special dinner! Hugs! Praise! Recognize and review all the hard things they did.

Bring it up once in a while. Tell other people. Help them build an image of themselves as adventurous kids who do hard things  Let them recognize themselves as people who can face adversity and come through the other side.

When I think about the life lessons I want my kids to learn, this is probably top of the list:

They can do hard things.

With every check on our long, long list, they learn a little lesson about what they can accomplish. And we’ve got lots more practice coming up.

There are still 20 more peaks to go.

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.