I’m slow reading a book titled The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It’s fascinating, but also long. Basically, due to a large number of factors, children are not playing independently and in natural settings as much as they used to, he believes this is having profound but unstudied effects on children today.
I grew up in the back of town on 8 acres with 3 siblings. We were free and encouraged to roam around and when my mom took a much-needed break (ie. shooed us outside, locked the door and ran herself a bath) that’s exactly what we did. I think back on my childhood with such fondness, but also with astonishment, partly that we all survived and partly because my parents encouraged our behaviours. I really wonder what they thought we were doing out there.
While she was bathing we were eradicating large wasp nests, with a barrage of both buckets of creek water and large rocks thrown from the safety of a very small embankment.
We laid out sticks on the street for cars to drive over, retreating to the woods for cover, triumphant when a car’s tire broke one in half.
We fished with sticks and buckets, bare feet precariously balanced on slippery rocks.
We built rickety fences with real hammers and nails, out of 1×2 pieces of wood and picked hay for the horses we wished to have.
We got blisters digging deep holes, imagining ourselves popping out on the other side of the world.
We lathered ourselves in mud, the thicker the better.
We threw clumps of dirt, handfuls of grass and rocks at each other. We learned to dodge them too, we learned to run fast and to throw back when necessary. We learned to negotiate, call truces and retreat.
We took turns riding our small dirt bike, which appeared small, but when full throttle could send 7 year old legs flying out behind it, while it’s rider continued to grasp the throttle, envisioning the inevitable crash, but hoping for the best.
We were allowed to attempt to sleep in our camper trailer, parked probably 100 meters from our front door. I say attempt because every single time, after the sun went down and our junk food supply ran low, we made that 100 meter dash, usually solo, for fear of wild animals breaking into the trailer. And later we actually slept in a tent, overlooking the trees, surrounded by empty bags of chips and candy wrappers.
When looking at my backyard my child eyes saw freedom, a place to explore to experiment and to build, to test boundaries and physical limits. We were explorers, conquerors and care takers; we were strong, we were brave and we were wild.
I just found out I’m a “millennial” parent, the cut off being the early 80’s, being born in ‘84, I am torn between my millennial thoughts and my desire to parent as my parents did. We were brought up in a different time, the age of double buckling and games of red rover, when we suspected my brother broke his arm, he was told to “sleep on it.” There was no google to tell my parents they were doing it wrong, so they just did. The only “mom group” my mom belonged to was literally a group of her three closest friends. Articles on social media didn’t alert them to the 1000 ways a child can die both in and outside of their home, forcing them to second guess every decision they made; they followed their instincts and their instincts served them well.
The millennial parent in me sees: a creek, filled with ankle shattering, wrist breaking, skull cracking rocks, ending with a drowning death pool, a busy road with fast dangerous cars packed with potential perverts, thumb bruising hammers and skin piercing nails, a perilous crash hazard, lurking bears, hungry cougars and angry wasps. I am so very fortunate to now live only 4 houses away from my favourite childhood property, surrounded by the forest, full of perceived potential dangers. It makes me anxious just thinking about my kids being outdoors without me, and yet I want that for them.
I want my kids to find joy in the outdoors, to navigate this space independently together, to use their imaginations and to care for nature. Louv says in order for adults to want to protect nature they must interact with nature as children and this occasionally involves destroying it. Which feels contradictory, but I think back to my days of trail blazing, feeding bugs to spiders, stepping on slugs, catching fish in the inhumane way, breaking off trees to make marshmallow roasting sticks, uprooting plants and cutting worms in half, and I know he is right. I have a deep respect for nature and I feel incomplete if I haven’t had enough time outside. I shudder to think of my children following in my borderline sociopathic footsteps, and yet so hope that they do.
I want to raise wild children while still keeping tabs on them. But I fear that’s not possible, because it wasn’t until my mom actually locked the door that we were set free.
Thank goodness, I’ve got a few years to wrap my head around this whole independent outdoor play thing, since right now, I can’t trust them alone down the hall.