Saturday, March 22, 2014


 another Spring, littler kids, playing with sticks

Yesterday we marked the beginning of Spring with the yearly ritual: The Return To The Playground.  The kids played, running in the sunshine, gloriously happy and alive and free for what seems like the first time in months. I sat on a bench, shivering. Because it may be Spring but it still feels like Winter.  At one point Lily stood and shouted to the Heavens, "It's SUMMER!!!"

Soon, baby, soon...

As Spring makes its way tentatively into our lives, my mind turns towards Summer too... and our garden plans. We still have a large heap of a garage (now filled to the roof with construction materials and broken toilets, how scenic!) in our "backyard."  In my imagination, however, the garage has been torn down, the concrete replaced with luscious green grass and nice straight rows of pest free organic vegetables. (Ha! There are enough squirrels and stray cats living around here to decimate even Martha's gardens.)

But, I've changed my plans today.

I read Hanna Rosin's recent article in the Atlantic "The Over Protected Kid".... and it blew my mind! And blew away my imaginary straight rows of vegetables. Because it seems to me that what my kids need in our backyard is some wildness.

About 18 months ago our family attended a little retreat at a center in New Jersey. Lily was a very active, very impulsive 2 year old, so we spent most of our time chasing her away from light sockets. (This was also the weekend she made her first best friend.) Six year old Daniel spent that weekend playing what can only be described as the "boys searching the woods for the largest stick and running" game. He would show up to meals covered in dirt, twigs and leaves, flushed and panting and satisfied in the way only great lengths of time outdoors can satisfy you. He would be out of our sight for hours at a time, and when we asked him what he'd been up to he'd say. "Nothing."

Which is, Rosin makes a good argument, EXACTLY as it should be.

She writes, "We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. "

How many times have I taken my kids to a beautiful play space with lots of climbing equipment, swings and slides, and they spend all their time climbing through the fence posts into the tiny bit of wildness left growing on the edge of the park? Or creating an obstacle course by using the play equipment all the "wrong way"? Or making mud puddles in the water fountain? It may drive us crazy, but they are just behaving in very normal, human ways.

Children, like all humans, love to create, to explore, to destroy and repair and experiment. And yet we bring them to perfectly manicured play spaces and tell them not to run because they might fall. We don't let them out of our sight. We label their toy bins. We throw out their broken toy cars and get upset at them for taking apart a mechanic toy to see how it works. Guilty, guilty, guilty... I have done all these things.

And to be honest, except for the labeling (I can't help it! I'm Swedish!)... those parenting moves all go against my instincts. I had bullied myself into thinking that my wish for them to play independently and preferably, out of my range of sight and hearing, was because of my insatiable unmet need for quiet and order.  I blamed my own laziness. I tried to be more fearful, more attentive. I let them play by themselves in front of our house and then felt guilty for not sitting by the front window to watch. How silly of me!

Rosin points out that children need to try out things that seem dangerous to them (climbing too high, going too far, running too fast)... because they need to experience both fear and overcoming fear. 

Sometimes I forget what my son's early childhood in rural Ethiopia was probably like. I forget that he probably spent a large portion of his day playing under the banana trees, getting dirty, getting hurt, climbing too high, wandering too far... That no one was watching him every second of his life.  And yet here he is, a very confident, strong, extraordinarily healthy almost 8 year old.  Nearly fearless.

Kids need wildness. They need to get messy and dirty and wander off and find their way back home.  I'll never forget my memory of the trill of being sent to the corner store to buy a loaf of bread all by myself for the first time. Clutching that dollar in my hands and turning the corner and crossing the street and then returning home, mission accomplished.  I was probably 8, maybe 9.

How many 8 year olds are sent out to buy a loaf of bread by themselves anymore?

When Spring really arrives I might start letting my kids ride their bikes all the way around the block. My fears about ax murderers lurking around the corner are ridiculous. If Lily falls off her bike, the whole neighborhood will hear her, I'm certain of that.  I will let them make giant messes in their playroom. (Gulp. No, really, it's okay.)  I will allow the corners of our garden to brim with sticks and mud and hiding places.  I will send my 8 year old to the store to buy bread.

We modern parents are so afraid. We cultivate our fear like we cultivate our gardens... Weeding out dis proven threats and planting new ones based on the latest research and data.  We are afraid that if we aren't afraid, we are being neglectful.

But here is the difference, I believe, between a neglectful parent and a parent who allows her child to be free.  When the child returns home with dirt and leaves in her hair and a scrape on her finger, the loving parent helps her wash up, puts a bandaid on the finger, hands her a sandwich, and listens to her adventures. Then she sends her off for more with a smile.  And the child knows mom has the sandwiches and the bandaids and the ears to listen.  She knows mom will let her go, and welcome her home. She clutches her dollar or her stick or her bundle of wildflowers or her new friend's hand and turns the corner.

Yesterday at the park Lily climbed to the top of the playground monkey bars for the first time. She stood up and shouted gleefully,  "I can see! I can see everything!" Then she looked down and whimpered, "I'm scared!"

And she smiled.

And climbed down all by herself.

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