Unstructured and Unsupervised: Attempting to Raise a (somewhat) Wild Child

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.

10 Replies to “Unstructured and Unsupervised: Attempting to Raise a (somewhat) Wild Child”

    Oh Darling! You hit that nail on the head (literally!).
    You’re right where my heart is at, in fact, I swear you read my mind!!! Cray Cray Lady!!! So amazingly written (as always!), I am in awe!

    Good Luck, in all your wild ways!
    Loving you!

  2. Great read, Natasha. Next time we meet, I will tell you about my experiences with knives in the classroom (this year,) and the building of a log cabin by thirty Grade Fours (a few years ago – I think the year you were in my class.) Kids are actually more cautious-savvy than we adults think and can be trusted to be smart about things we think ‘dangerous.’

    1. Thank you Peter 🙂 Yes you HAVE to tell me about the knives in school haha!! I think you are right, that kids are more savvy than we give them credit for, especially in pairs or groups!!

  3. “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.”

    A powerful thought, Natasha. Beautifully said.

    Growing up in Lynn Valley (North Vancouver) in the 1960s, my playground was the creeks along our 1-mile (uphill) walk to school. (No kidding, we actually had a way to walk uphill on the way back home, too!). We also had the twin swamps, deep in the forest behind the school; the abandoned rock quarry; Lynn Canyon and the Hastings Creek ravine.

    All told, I could walk a half hour in three directions in my nature quest, along with my brother and friends — or on my own, by age 8 or so. I don’t think the door was ever locked. TV was two channels at best, so there was usually something else more captivating during daylight hours.

    It was a huge amount of freedom and I never asked my parents “What were you thinking?” before they passed. It was the norm, though. Helicopter parents didn’t exist in the suburbs in the 1960s.

    Yeah, we senselessly killed some animals, or brought frogs and snakes home, to live their last few weeks in a jar or aquarium. Heck… I still enjoy helping a fly land in a spider’s web, to watch the action. The spider enjoys it, too.

    But: I think I still would have learned to appreciate nature if my mom had said, “No frogs or snakes in the house!” I probably could have done without shooting squirrels and jays if my dad had caught me and steered me toward bull’s eyes or beer cans.

    Yesterday at the local stream, the grandsons were catching minnows in nets, then putting them in a bucket for later release. Two brothers, about age 10, were there with their mom (who was caught up in conversation with another mom. She had “locked the door.”)

    The one boy was fishing respectfully with a rod, while his brother scooped up minnows with a net and added them to our bucket. Relatively harmless stuff.

    Then I noticed a gathering of kids around the bucket. The ‘net’ brother had a large minnow on his finger. It wasn’t moving but I thought it might still be alive. I told him to put it back in the bucket. He did… then he picked up another, deftly pinched it and plucked off a pectoral fin and flipped it over to do the other side. It looked like he’d done this many times before.

    What a little prick!

    I sure didn’t want my grandson thinking this was okay, so I said, “Hey! You can’t doing that! These fish need to live.”

    He dropped it back in the bucket and went back to fishing, though I saw all the minnows were gone from the bucket, when we came back to it, later.

    Mom was oblivious — but if she had gotten involved, I would HOPE she wouldn’t have defended that kind of cruelty. Curiously, she rolled down her window and said, “Thank you,” as they drove away at the end of the day. Maybe she hadn’t been as zoned out as I thought she was, and she appreciated the policing.

    So: yes, to less kid coddling — but also don’t come to their defence when the “village” steps in to educate them, if they’re doing wrong.

    Trouble is: what is “wrong,” these days? … a theme for another blog piece.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts Barry! It sounds like you and Linda may have run wild in the same areas of North Van!!

      We also only had 2 TV channels, both very grainy, outside was definitely more entertaining.

      Yes, some of the destroying is probably not necessary. My brother killed 1 bird, my mom said the next one he was eating haha… he stuck to targets (sometimes me) after that!! But sadly we too kept frogs captive too long.

      That’s totally true, I think we do need to let the village do it’s job. If someone is hurting animals, it’s alright for them to hear “that’s not ok” maybe that’s the teacher in me (us both) haha, maybe others wouldn’t be as accepting. We can guide and hope that that guidance lingers in their little minds 🙂

  4. Ten knives in my classroom on the last day of school. I sweated over it all the night before, and came to school and found out there was going to be two blenders in the mix! (We were preparing a series of snacks for ourselves, with another teacher giving the lesson – she was obviously much braver than me!) The idea of thirty nine and ten years olds brandishing knives terrified me – and why, oh why, did there have to be blenders? At the end of the morning, I have to say that the kids impressed me – all these ‘implements of doom’ had been used wisely and appropriately – and we had a snack to boot! I found that the kids were much more cautious – even comfortable – with the knives than I originally gave them credit for. No cuts, no slices of human flesh,no flying trips to ER. Great job, kids.

    1. Hahahaha I can just picture you sweating over it!! I get it! It’s our job to ensure most of the kids return home with most of their fingers at the end of the year lol!! I’m glad they impressed you… they’re so capable to rise to the occasion!! Great job, teacher for letting that happen!!

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