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.


The ranger was doing his job, the girl felt the steps were dangerous and the ranger operated within his authority by not letting the girl climb the steps. It’s a fine line between what a ranger can and cannot do with regards to the child/parent relationship, however in this case the ranger was correct.

I think the ranger was right! why put that child in a situation that was scary and unpredictable feeling to the child! I would have done the same if I was there.

Hooray for the ranger! I'm sure the teen felt like she had already been rescued at the bottom of the steps.

I think the ranger was right only from the perspective that those stairs are his responsibility and jurisdiction. The child could, due to her fear, endanger herself, the ranger or others on the tour.

I disagree most likely the teen was just rebelling against the parent, if there was no danger then the ranger should of stayed out of it. After working with teens for the last ten years, I got to say that the majority of parents know their teens and should be obeyed.

The Ranger was correct.

Let me clarify my remark made before this remark. If the mother had struck the girl across the face because she did not want to go up the stairs, what should the Ranger have done? In this case, it sounds like the girl must have been terrified of going up the stairs. If so, the mother was being just as mean and hateful by wanting to make her child go up the stairs. Most people have a phobia that never goes away. If the mother thought this was a way of making her daughter overcome her fear, she herself needs to go get some counseling. A teen-ager has enough to face without a mother pushing her greatest fear in her face. Thank you, Ranger.

The ranger was wrong. The ranger has no idea the whole story behind the parental command. Neither do any of us. Without knowing the whole story, the authority has to go to the parent. By countermanding the parent, the ranger also assumed full responsibility for this minor until the parent returned. That is not right. The ranger should be reprimanded.

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.

I think he was within his rights and responsibility. It's not only the safety of the teen but that of other people who could be on the steps.

I read the part about "worried by the stairs" which I interpreted as fear.

I took a tour at Oregon Caves this spring. When I saw those stairs and heard they were completely optional, I heaved a sigh of relief. As a person scared of heights, I have been in situations where people tried to get me to "face my fear". It didn't work, the fear is still with me. No one should ever be forced or coerced up those steps. They're skinny, metal stairs and any emergency that happened there could be very difficult to deal with.

This is rediculous. So a ranger who has never met this family knows what is best for the child? This is all about a ranger who felt a little power. He should be fired. If the ranger was truly concerned about the child's safety, he could have asked to speak with the parent privately and asked a few questions, explained the dangers, discussed past experiences, etc. It is infuriating to think a ranger feels the right to interupt a private conversation.

The ranger should have used a little more tact. I can certainly understand why they wouldn't want someone to climb who didn't want to, but a better explanation of why they felt the teen shouldn't climb would have made a difficult confrontation a little less tense.

Good for the ranger. As a victim of years of physical abuse by my mother when I was growing up, I learned that merely giving birth does not make you a mother. Ninety-something swaying steps could induce fear in anybody, particularly a vulnerable teenager. I reported a woman who was beating the crap out of her little girl in a van outside an ER room. Yes, she gave birth to that child. No, she was not a mother. Abuse comes in many forms and forcing a child to do something that just sounds frightening--never mind how it looks in person--can be one form of that abuse. I would like to know what the girl said to the ranger, if anything--but at least he recognized her fear and protected her. I have a phobia about water. I can't swim because of it. Tossing me into a pool and making me learn it the hard way would not cure my phobia--it would merely enforce it.

It seems she had some type of hidden fear, from observation! There may be more! We all never know because we are not the Mother or more in case, the daughter! NPS is trained to recognized emotions & situations. I was several times in this situation as a teen, where my Mother forced me to do things. Later only to say that I was lazy! As Mother's we don't sometimes realize our child's (teen or not) fears, phobias, or insecurities. It was only when I was older did I tell my Mom about them. We may recognize some BUT not all. I say it was right for the Ranger to say she isn't obliged to go. It was tight spaced & maybe the Ranger recognized that she had some fear or insecurity of that optional trip. Whether to prevent a situation from happening. The Ranger stayed with the teen until the remainder of the group came back to tour.

*Here is a side not, if you whatsoever hit a child/teen on Federal land, is a Federal offense that carries a felony. Anyone in NPS' view sight, will be arrested! It's not within state where its a investigation & social services to visit!

I lived in a National Park there laws are more strict & different than state!

Go ranger! If the child was truly frightened, then she should not be forced to ascend the steps. If she was just rebelling against Mom, well, it will be her loss when she realizes what she missed out on. Either way, the ranger was right, though perhaps a bit more tact might have helped.

If I had of been the parent, I would have been having a discussion with the ranger's supervisor. The ranger had better not get between me and my child - the ranger had no clue what led up to the discussion or why the parent insisted and clearly stuck a nose where it DID NOT BELONG!

Jimi, a higher authority takes place over any child's safety. Always! Not a parents poor judgement considering the potential dangers of the environment (the 92 steps) which the child could be placed in. Suppose the child panic and slipped into a crowd of people below the ladder...then what? Yap, law suits all over the place. The ranger was right and did right!!

The ranger has the ability to determine if the situation is unsafe or unwise but should talk directly to the parent not the child and give the parent a choice if there is one to proceed with or without the child. I am sure each situation is unique, but the ranger should have the final say but should not address a minor child regarding the choice of options. The parent must be responsible for her/his child and the ranger must be responsible to the park and any situation that may occur.

The ranger was clearly within his rights to side with the this instance. If the mother had continued to force her it would have turned into an unpleasant trip for the child as well as other visitors. In this case I feel the mother hopefully learned a valuable lesson. Being a "bully" isn't necessarily the right way to handle frightening situations with your child.

I agree the ranger was doing his job, but If I was the ranger I was have clarified the situation better and not have been so demanding. I would have explained to the mother the dangers that could have happened if her teenager would have paniced. I would have that the mother explain why she was assisting that her child go and than have the teenager explain their reasoning. Than I would have to think what the best interest for all three would have been. If all indications point that the teen was afraid than I being the park ranger would not have wanted to take any chances of anyone getting hurt on my watch.

I remember visiting the South Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon and admonishment that our ranger guide gave before he led the hike down to Cedar Ridge. He basically said that after the hike he was planning on making his weekly trip to Williams for a pie at his favorite restaurant. His goal was that nobody got injured or required any sort of assistance because that would have meant that he'd be filling out paperwork and delaying his weekly visit.

A park ranger is responsible for all parties on a tour/guided hike. If his judgment was that a fearful teen was a potential danger to others, then his judgment overrides the mother's wishes. I certainly hope that I don't run into any parent like that where the safety of myself or my family is at risk.

Of course we probably don't know exactly what the tone was or if there might have been additional words exchanged that weren't in the article.

The ranger was wrong. If we're concerned with lawsuits, precedent has shown that if visitors are informed of the risks of an activity (e.g., a cave tour) and choose to go anyway, courts won't hold the park liable. Plus unless the parent is asking the child to do something that is dangerous, such that no visitor should do it, then the ranger should step in. Otherwise it's the parent's prerogative to raise the children as they see fit (whether we like it or not).

Hooray for the Ranger who was operating by his good sense/experience apart from the Mother who was clearly operating out of her obvious & probably usual knee-jerking response of...."because I said so". I'm glad he stood his ground up against Mrs Stupid. Why stupid? the time a person gets to be a teenager they should have a sense for what their safety parameters should be. Hooray for the kid who recognized her limitations in keeping safe and likewise stood up to Mrs. Stupid. This same kid will probably have guts enough to stand up to her peers....those ones on their way to becoming Mrs Stupids when offered alcohol, drugs & cigarettes. I think the ranger should have directed Mrs. Stupid to the nearest exit for causing a scene in a place that is inherently dangerous and out of the ordinary.

The ranger was out of line. It is not his/her decision to make. The ranger undermined the parent which my cause future problems between parent and teenager. Most of the time the teenager is testing the parent and more than likely had an attitude about being on vacation with family.

All of the people that think it was right need to think about your attitude toward law enforcement officers. Is it right for a law enforcement officer out side of the National Park to undermine the parent? I think most parents would be calling the supervisor to complain about the officer interfering.

As a park ranger myself, I can say that the ranger in your story was probably oversteping his/her bounds by the information provided. By taking control of the situation in that manner the ranger also took responsibility for any adverse outcomes. If the child had done something that caused any sort of injury or harm while the parent was away, the Rager would have a major legal issue to deal with; as would the ranger's employer. The proper response would have been to leave this up to the parent, and then if the disagreement between the two resulted in a public disturbance the family should have been asked to leave the area and resolve it's problems elsewhere. Unless the ranger witnessed some sort of abuse, in which case there may have been some intervention with possible legal ramifications. But in most real world situations, the ranger might have tried to find a way to settle the issue with a more creative and visitor friendly solution, like just offering the parent the options of having the ranger attend the minor while the parent climbed the feature, or maybe evening finding out why the kid didn't want to go and try to explain the attraction to get the kid past any fear or other issues so he or she could enjoy the climb and not miss out on it.

It was a judgement call. The ranger made it. It is assumed he was acting within the scope of his responsibility and authority. Had the girl panicked and been injured or caused others to be injured the question would then be why didn't the ranger prevent the accident when he had reason to believe the girl was frightened by the ascent.

Why are so many strangers second guessing the judgement of the ranger who was there then. And every one substituting their own experiences for what the teen/parent/ranger MUST have been thinking/doing/misdoing. Abuse, heavy hand, timid, lazy, and on and on. Even to the point of some calling the ranger he and some she, when the original article almost carefully avoided mentioning gender.

Project much?

I believe like so many here that the Ranger made a good judgment call. Park Rangers have to look after the safety of all the people there. If this teenager, whether rebellious or scared had gotten half way up the stairs and then had a problem, this could potentially be a hazard to others around her. The mother's behavior rings more of a bully then a mother caring about her child, because when faced with a strong opposition she backed down and walked away. We aren't privy to why mom acted this way and wanted to force the issue, but as a Mom myself, I would never turn and walk away from my child. I don't care how rebellious they became, and I especially wouldn't leave my teenage daughter with a man I didn't know, Ranger or not. I believe that the Ranger was acting in the best interest of the Park and the child. My children are now grown and my daughter has had a fear of heights since she was very small. Others have tried to force her to face the fear of heights, but to face your fears you need to be ready to face them....and not have it forced upon you!

you mean instead of just turning a walking away? Hmmm wonder if the Mom knew she was wrong to potentially endanger the child and others around her.

I think the ranger was right in this situation. I have never been to this cave, but it seems that having someone on the steps that does not want to be there, or does not have their mind on what they are doing, could cause a problem for someone else on the steps. This sounds like a situation where everyone involved needs to be somewhat careful, so if you don't think you can be in control of yourself, it is best to realize your limitations so you do not cause problems or delays for the rest of the group.

If teenagers are are old enough to fight in Iraq - they are old enough to be able to judge their comfort factor.

Fear is often a good thing. Especially when it occurs in the National Parks. It is often foolish bravado that causes accidents and death.

And if I listened to my parents I would never have experienced the National Parks or backcountry. Thank god I broke out and away of the mold they cast for me.

KUDOS to the ranger!!!

I think we need to get the whole story before choosing who was in the right. I am sure there is a lot more to the story then we were given. I believe if the ranger was in the right he could have found an appropriate way to have the mother leave the child with him then to undermind her authority the way he did in front of the child. But then again we do not have the whole story.

I have been to the caves and did not go up there.
The Ranger was in is right, to let the gal know that she did not have to go there.
As a mother I feel that a Child will know what is comfortable and what is not.


Rick B is right. We do not know the whole story, and even if we did, every situation is unique and should be judged accordingly. Additionally, none of us know the protocols and regulations of the NPS well enough to make definitive statements about ranger's actions. My advice: Skip the topic, and go watch Ken Burns film on PBS.

As one who has wished that I could do something when I'm in a public situation and there is tense parent child situation, just to relieve the stress for both parent and child, I have to think we should err on the side of the child. Think of the recent comments on the tragedy of the child at many expected the rangers to be responsible. I am also thinking of the situation in California were the campus police acted on their intuition and checked on the man with 2 young girls leading to their and their mothers resque from a pedophile.
No one agrees with basic parenting issues and we certainly don't have all the facts in this incident, nor do we have an unbiased report but if this was a typical "I don't want to " teenager so what ? If this was a fearful young woman being bullied by a parent then I believe this ranger had a responsibility to his charge. Parental rights do not extend to abuse in any form.

I am not sure that you can assume the child was lazy if you cannot assume the child was frightened.....sort of a double standard. I believe you are correct when you say we are assuming too much about the situation based on the information but unfortunately, you do the same thing by assuming simply because she is a teenager, she is lazy.

I believe we have too little information to be forming any opinions one way or another. We weren't there.....we don't know the relationship of the parent and child.......we don't know any of the physical nuiances that could give us a lot of information......simply, not enough information to make any kind of judgement.

At one time my husband and I had five teenagers at the same time and we routinely had to "drag" them on family vacations. Now that they are all grown they all look back on those family vacations fondly and since my husband and I remember quite a few "fights" we are amazed that they seem to have conveniently forgotten them. There were many times when we informed the kids that they would do certain things whether they liked it or not. If I had been asking my kids to do anything that would have endangered them then I would certainly have welcomed it if a Ranger felt the need to step in and point out any potential dangers, BUT, if a Ranger thought that he had the right to step in between me and my teenager because they decided that they didn't want to do something then the Ranger would have needed some serious medical help by the time that I was through with him. As a mom I was very aware of any "fears" that my kids had and I also knew when they were just pushing my buttons. Since the Ranger had no clue as to what was going on between the mother and the teenager it would have been much more appropriate for him to have spoken to the mother privately rather than doing it in front of the teenager. It is hard enough for a parent to assert their authority to a teenager in the best of circumstances, but with the way that the Ranger interfered he made this mother's position intolerable and I can guarantee it that he made the situation between this mother and daughter very tense for quite some time.

There is far too little information presented to make even the most general assumptions about the appropriateness of the ranger's behavior. The whole argument is an exercise in fantasy, pending more facts. It should be classified as "observation of an awkward moment" and left at that.

When it comes to sweet talking to momma or papa about public safety in the national parks, regarding the rules, regulations or guidelines...give me a break! When you have hundreds of tourist running all over place and peppering you with all kinds of questions and in the mean while, your watching over the public safety with definitely have your hands full. It's crowd control vigilance for public safety while conducting your tour of duty as ranger. Your not a babysitter or a verbal mouth piece to handle all domestic disputes, but your hired as a ranger to teach, educate and enhance the wilderness experience. That's your job to be a professional ranger and not a family counselor. Agreed manners, tact and diplomacy is a good virtue but to a point.

Interesting situation, but being fearful of heights myself, I'm glad the ranger spoke up for the child. There are parents that just push too much. Firefly was right, the stairs are the ranger's responsibility. Was there conversation about the child's safety or why she did not want to go up? We don't know the cooperation levels between mom and child. If the child was rebelling, let her miss out on something so beautiful, she will think about it later in life. Too many unknowns, so just on the possibility of a fear of heights and the dangers/problems that can produce, I side with the ranger.

Took this article and all the comments into my public lands class today to see what type of discussion would take place. We discussed it for a good hour and I heard some good opinions and theories about it. As a hopeful future NPS employee I wanted to see how my fellow students felt. Most agreed with the Ranger, as well as I. Interestingly enough those that agreed were only students. The few that disagreed were students as well as parents. My instructor compared it to one of our other courses where we are learning how to manage a high ropes course and a huge part of the class is challenge by choice. The concept refers to the participant choosing how far they want to challenge themselves. So if there was a student up on the ropes course and didn't want to complete an element and a parent on the ground wanted them to what would the facilitator do? This situation would not be much different than the one discussed in this article. There were inherent risks involved regardless of whether we understand them or not. Kudos to the Ranger.