Two years ago, our sons’ preschool brought in writer and consultant Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. The purpose, amid a capital campaign for a natural playscape, was to educate us about the importance of allowing risks and exploration while enjoying nature with our children.
In this spirit, the school allowed its students to climb the trees bordering the three-acre playground. “As long as you can get yourself down” was the rule for tree-climbing—until the day our older son fell out of one.
Soeren’s scrapes required no medical attention; he healed completely within a week. It may sound odd, but I was delighted to learn that the abrasions to the side of my son’s face were not from falling, but from catching himself on a low branch. Soeren has always been a reluctant physical risk-taker, constrained by an anxiety about “what if” that is uncomfortably familiar. My parental pride and the exhortations of the nature consultant aside, however, the trees were declared off limits for the rest of the year.
Several months later, a different child fell from a metal climbing structure, breaking his arm. In my own school experience, it was at least a yearly rite of passage for the ambulance to come and take an arm-breaker to the hospital. The child came back the next day to much fanfare; we all signed her cast, and life continued as before. What happened in this case was an ambulance ride, a hushed apology to the family, and the near-immediate dismantling of the offending piece of playground equipment. The entire set was taken down and hauled away; the children played in a yard of flat grass with balls and trucks for the rest of the year.
What these events meant for our obligation as parents to “take risks” and “explore nature” was never made clear. I still wonder, but in reality, this particular school’s interpretations are unimportant. The larger principles at work are what is noteworthy—and concerning.
An emphasis on safety above all things as a response to competing values (Get back into nature! Without anyone becoming hurt, or frightened, or dirty!) has redefined the parental obligations for an entire generation.
Unfortunately, this emphasis encourages fear rather than eliminating it, and inflicts collateral damage in the process. Were we to truly examine what it means to expect accidents not to happen, we might realize that what we have come to expect from ourselves and each other is not just safety, but control. Possibly absolute control—over our own thoughts and actions, over those of our children, over environments, over weather, over chance.
This expectation of control stands in stark contrast to how I was raised. I grew up in Wyoming and experienced a childhood that, admittedly, fell at the far “free range” end of the parenting spectrum. However, the facebook memes making the rounds—you know, the ones listing all the things we’re “the last generation to ___”– seem to strike a nerve with my generation of parents. I’m guessing it’s because those lists acknowledge that things today are different from how any of us were raised, and those days now seem simpler and also far out of reach.
How can I keep my sons free from significant harm, yet allow them to have access to a childhood of hard-won discoveries, unsupervised explorations, and the power to invent worlds, destroy them, and start over the next day? Most times, this might be left an idle question, read about in somebody else’s blog post, pondered briefly, forgotten by dinner. Later that same year, however, I experienced a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. This affected my own parental perceptions of danger quite acutely; suddenly it became important to find answers to these questions, or at least strategies for wrestling with them, stat.
In desperation or habit or deep ancient wisdom, I felt a pull toward Wyoming, scene of my own childhood, to look for those answers. To Vedauwoo, specifically—a series of tall granite outcroppings rising out of the high plains between Cheyenne and Laramie, and the natural heritage and birthright of southeastern Wyoming kids. Vedauwoo means picnics, campouts, family hikes and wiener roasts, and later hooky days from school, stargazing, college keg parties. And, unavoidably, it also means danger.
Here amid the echoes and the rocks (and in this part of Wyoming, even the dirt isn’t far removed from rock; Si falls down and we spend five minutes removing tiny shards of granite from his shin), parenting initially appears harder than ever. Risk looms larger here; what I barely noticed as a child is inescapable in watching my sons scramble delightedly across the rocks. Danger—the real kind—beckons like the pied piper from all directions. The boys could fall from a cliff. They could drown in the pond. They could lose the trail. They could cross paths with a bear or a wildcat, be struck by lightning, or, in the particular case of my two-year-old, eat poisonous mushrooms, climb into the latrine, or cut your wrists on any of the jagged pieces of glass from the beer bottles that come here to die each weekend. This place has been called a playground for those who love nature, but it’s a playground likely to give my generation of parents headaches, if not actual nightmares. Gymboree it is not.
It’s overwhelming. Or at least, I am overwhelmed. And so, in full sun next to a wall of rock my children have just disappeared behind, with Daddy following along as spotter, I set my pack in the gravel and lie down with my head upon it. I give up, for a bit, on vigilance. Lying there, I also give up on trying to understand. I ask myself if I’m also planning to give up on thinking, or breathing, or being, as I stare upward from the ground.
The patch of earth on which I’m lying slopes down a bit from my back to my head. I wonder vaguely if I’m falling off the world or held tighter to it, and as I lie there I realize I’m facing a rock formation that I have climbed many times.
Gazing up at the granite, I am speechless, taking it in as though for the first time. The sun feels both far away and uncomfortably intense, the light unique to clear days at high altitude. The rocks reflect the light brightly in some places, and glow softly in pink and orange in others. The sky surrounding the cliffs is cloudless, a color that instantly evokes a hundred memories but defies naming. It is beautiful. It is forceful. It is sharp, and hard, and angular and, just . . . undeniably there.
This place is a physical representation of the phrase “It is what it is,” words that irritate and even provoke me in nearly every context. Here, though, in the face of so much unyielding rock, they are comforting. As I have known you, so you are. Even now. Even still.
As befits a person on the edge of crazy, I talk to these rocks, asking, “If you are the same, and I am the same, why can’t I keep my children safe here when my parents could? How were they calm in the face of your danger? How did they know that things would be ok?”
I try to remember how my parents acted. What strategies they used to calm or caution us. But as I think about it, what I remember most is being left to our own devices. We played; the grownups sat, fire blazing, at a neighboring campsite and talked. We climbed trees and explored caves; they climbed rocks and whistled down to us. This is confusing—how could they have made sure that we were safe if they weren’t there? How could they have known at which moment we might get into danger, and prevent it? How could they have looked away while we climbed surrounded by only hard landings? In my own life as a parent, I feel affronted when a playground has soft-form asphalt rather than mulch under the climbing equipment.
We yearn for control and we imagine that we wield it—but ultimately, we cannot ignore the tension created where our theories and the world-in-practice do not match up. When accidents do happen—to someone else’s child or our own—how do we react, emotionally? With guilt? With shame? With condemnation?
Outwardly, we place added pressure on ourselves, on other parents, or on laws to do what the world itself refuses to—protect us at all costs. The concept of “accident” has itself changed in the years since we were children—what once, in one sense, applied to a great mystery of life—sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why—now indicates only negligence, whether or not we can immediately pinpoint the source.
In this context, failing to protect a child from harm is unforgiveable. We look immediately and mercilessly for someone to hold responsible when a child is hurt in any way. As for ourselves, we believe that we simply won’t make those bad choices, and accidents will therefore never happen to us.
This attitude is a mistake, and not just because it stigmatizes those to whom bad things happen, or because places an impossible weight upon our shoulders. It is mistaken because it cuts us off from growth. Writing now, later, I can share that in coping with PTSD symptoms, I have had to learn two things: to see and evaluate risk more objectively, even in the face of a strong emotional response, and to accept with serenity the knowledge that there is true danger simply in being alive. I will posit that these are the same tasks we must take on as parents guiding our children through a frightening world.
First, we must strive to see risk for what it is, and to acknowledge it where we find it. Some things simply are too potentially damaging to allow a child to do so long as we are the ones responsible for her safety—though these determinations may vary by child, by parent, by family. Other things, however, are not nearly so dangerous as we believe them to be, and have benefits that far outweigh the risks. For our family, playing outside with minimal supervision fits into this second category; riding bikes without helmets into the first.
Next—and this one is the nailbiter—we must accept that it is not possible to make the world “safe.” Dangers, known and unknown, are part of the bargain we make in living. Our task, then, is to accept, and then move beyond acceptance to embracing the way that risk and challenge shape our lives.
In the end, whether we are willing to see it or not, our children are all climbing dangerously. And so are we. Maybe what they need—what we each need—isn’t a bigger safety net. Maybe it’s actually a bigger rock, or the experience to know that the climb itself is its own reward. The view from the top isn’t too shabby either, but the real reason we need to do it is because risk is part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us real.
Let’s not focus on making the world risk-free, then. Let us instead climb to the high places, and in so doing, tap into the great pride of human accomplishment. And let’s look to our children as we climb. It is up to us to protect them—but they are the ones who can show us how to get ourselves back down again, and to do it with joy and grace.