Buying waders for a kid is not only expensive, it’s senseless: They outgrow them in a year. So instead, my dad hefted me onto his back and set out into the marsh for a youth day duck hunt. With my arms wrapped tight around his neck, he grunted and sweated his way through knee-deep muck and head-high cattails, hands gripping my gun and dry box, the latter filled with more snacks and extra warm clothing than ammo. Every 50 feet I’d start to lose my grip and he’d be forced to stop and shuffle me back up to his shoulders. It must have been exhausting for him, but it ranks among my fondest hunting memories. We reached the blind in time to watch the sun come up over the lake, bonding in a way that few parents and children experience. If you’re like me, you want to experience those same moments with your kids. But a common question is, when is the right time to start them out, and how should I approach it? Here are a few suggestions.
When is the right time to start my kid out hunting?
As with most things in parenting, it depends on the kid. Every child is unique. I have friends with children who, since they were able to walk, have been fearless and naturally at home in the woods. They seem unaffected by dirt, cold weather, insects, or being wet. They have a fascination with hunting and always ask if they can come with when my buddy goes into the field.
Contrast that with my seven-year-old daughter, who is terrified of bugs, has an innate fear of loud noises like gunshots, and has decided she’s going to be a vegetarian because she abhors the thought of eating an animal. Still, she has shown an interest in camping and target shooting, and I’ve tried to ease her into an outdoor lifestyle at a pace she finds comfortable. Maybe someday she’ll recognize the humane nature of ethical hunting for sustenance and adjust her views from a dietary perspective.
Some kids handle discomfort well, others not so much. Some are enthusiastic about the idea of hunting while others may want nothing to do with it. Many struggle with the notion of killing an animal that may have been a storybook character to them not so long ago. Most will be squeamish—especially at first—at the sight of a field-dressed animal. Knowing when they’re ready for each step is less hard science and more intuition. Ask them frequent questions about how they’re feeling and be prepared to slow things down or call it an early day.
The key is to not push too hard, thinking you can control the outcome. If you gently guide them toward hunting, you’re much more likely to see them embrace it than if you drag them along kicking and screaming.
How should I approach it?
Nothing will get a kid to hate something faster than forcing them to do it. Instead, tell your kids what you’re doing when you go on a hunt and what it means to you, relate fun stories and experiences you’ve had, and ask them if they’d like to join you sometime. When they show interest, start out easy. Tailor a hunt to them. Wake up a little later, serve a special pre-hunt breakfast, get them geared up, and watch the weather forecast to select a day when the weather isn’t too unpleasant. Bring snacks. Bring extra warm clothes. Be prepared to leave 30 minutes after you arrive.
Hunting is a rewarding experience, but it takes a certain maturity to appreciate the less dynamic and exciting aspects of the sport. Communing with nature, clearing your mind, forcing yourself to slow down, these are all things that kids are not necessarily equipped to appreciate. Instead, strive to make it a fun, painless experience, and recognize that the first time out may not be everything you dream of in a hunt. Teach them some basic elements of fieldcraft. Ask them to help you make a fire. Look for sign and teach them which animal it belongs to.
The key isn’t necessarily to hook them with the first outing; just make it pleasant and memorable. They’ll be willing to give it another go even if they don’t get a single shot or even see game. Creating positive memories of hunting will create a strong foundation upon which your kids can build a lifetime of hunting experiences.