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Should A National Park Ranger Countermand a Parent?


The climb up to Paradise Lost at Oregon Caves National Monument can be intimidating. NPS photo of the Paradise Lost flowstone formation.

I was touring Oregon Caves National Monument recently when I witnessed an interesting scene between a ranger and a guest – one which makes me wonder about the parameters of ranger authority.

Near the end of the tour is an optional side trip from the Ghost Room, up a swaying set of 92 steps, to the small but famous Paradise Lost formation of flowstones, which rise tier on tier toward the cave dome. A teen-age girl, apparently worried by the stairs, said she did not want to make the climb.

“You have to,” her mother said.

“No she does not,” the ranger said.

“I’m her mother, and I say she does,” the woman said.

“No she does not,” the ranger said, standing between the girl and her mother.

The ranger and the mother eyed each other for a moment, and then the mother headed up the steps without her daughter, who stayed below in the company of the ranger.

The incident raises interesting questions. Should a ranger countermand the authority of a parent? I think most of us would say “yes” if the parent were asking her child to do something illegal or patently dangerous. But the stair was not an out-and-out danger, just a fear that the parent may have wanted her child to face and master.

On the other hand, I think many of us can also sympathize with the ranger. The trip to Paradise Lost is clearly called optional, and the stairs can be intimidating. Certainly the ranger did not want to have to rescue the child, frozen by fear halfway up the steps.

I’d like to read what the readers think – if not about this incident specifically, then about the position of rangers in general when it comes to parents and children. Maybe some others of you have witnessed similar incidents where the commands of one authority have come into conflict with the other.


Imagine if that parent was trying to make the child ascend the last part of the climb at Zion's Angel's Landing? Obviously no one should be "made" to do that hike; and in general, everyone has to decide for themselves what their own abilities are.

Before reading the end of the article, I felt the ranger was within his rights to step in. It was his area to protect, both the site and the public. I agree that he could have been put in a position of rescue.

ok, sounds like people are assuming too much. who said the child was scared, most like likely lazy. a teen doesn't get scared as easily as a little child. a teen rebels and does what he/she wants. the ranger overstepped his bounds. parenting is up to the parent. we may not all agree with how a child is raised, but no one has the authority to tell the parent how to do it. if the child did not want to go to school on friday, would the ranger come and say, "no, she doesn't have to go?" in reality, she doesn't have to. she should and it's up to the parent to make sure she does, but missing a day isn't a big deal and there is no dire consequence, if she doesn't. a parent, is the parent, and should be allowed to parent, without someone overstepping their bounds. i say leave the child with the ranger and let the ranger babysit...

If there is a real danger then the ranger was correct. But as an ombudsman between the park and the public, he did a very poor job as it is relayed. A statement such as "There are real safety concerns that we don't want people to exceed their capabilities" would be far better. If he couldn't make such a statement in all honesty (I don't know how safe/unsafe the stairs are), then his intrusion was inappropriate.

Although we don't know the whole story, I think that the ranger butted in when her opinion was not needed or solicited. Of course, as the writer states, if the activity is illegal or against park rules, i.e., the parent tells the child to cut through off a trail where it's not allowed, then the ranger must step in. But in a conversation between parent and child, there's no need. From the description given, the ranger stood between the mother and child, physically displaying her authority. Sounds to me as if government authority decided that it could see into the future and went on a bit of a power trip.

The ranger was right; their first responsibility is to insure the safety of the entire tour group. Whether it was the girl’s fears or the mother wanting to exert control over a teenager the forcing the girl to go up could have created a rescue situation. I have dealt with students who suffer from panic attacks, and when scared they physically flee knocking whoever and whatever out of their way. In fact from your account of the mother's words and actions had she forced her daughter to go up the stairs I would have been required by law to report her for suspicion of child emotional abuse.

Having had issues with heights since I was a little girl - which I have struggled with for almost 50 years, I feel that the ranger was in the right here. Yes, we do NOT know the true motivation behind the girl's refusal, it may have been laziness, but it is MORE cruel to assume that then to force someone who has a fear of heights to face those fears NOT of their own volition. To fight a phobia, you have to do it on your OWN terms, not at the will of others, or you can embed that fear all the more deeply. I have a horrible memory of a trip like this taken when I was ten years old, when halfway up the climb I became paralyzed and just couldn't take another step up, regardless of the urging and commands of my family. They eventually had to leave me behind, and catch up with me on the climb back down - but it was an EXCRUCIATING period of time before they got back to me - both because of fear and humiliation as all these other people (including small children) easily passed by me. I have fought this fear many times in the ensuing decades, and the only times I have been able to successfully overcome it was when I could mentally prepare myself, and proceed at my own pace. If there was even the slightest chance that it was a fear of heights, then to try and force the climb was not only foolish on the part of the parent, but also cruel and abusive (if they were aware of the girl's fear.) In her fear she may have become clumsy or, like me, petrified in fear, thus posing a danger to herself and anyone else trying to get by her (up OR down). The ranger may have seen this scenario many times, and therefore knows what to look for (either with fear or rebellion) and was responding with extensive experience. Having had extensive interaction with rangers the breadth and depth of this country, I can truly say that most of them are VERY aware of people and their needs, and are probably no more willing to back a rebellious recalcitrant teen than any parent, but ARE aware of what is needed to maintain public safety, decorum and a pleasurable time in our nation's parks.

There's no way to know why the girl didn't want to go up the stairs, but I think the ranger was well within his rights. It's his job to make the right judgment call. Our own fears get in the way of safety all too often, and a panic-stricken child can get herself in trouble even in the "safest" of places. This way he knew the girl was safe. For a child, a park experience should be a pleasant experience, not a scary one.

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