Today is the 200th birthday of minimalist, naturalist, transcendentalist, carpe-diem-ist, and American author Henry David Thoreau, whose writings and simple, sometimes disobedient lifestyle have influenced greats such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. while also inspiring generations of self-righteous teens to free themselves from the oppressive demands and unhealthy expectations of a consumerist society.
Let’s reflect on a few of Thoreau’s more meme-ified quotes. The first is a poignant and depressing observation that, come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen in meme form.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
According to Thoreau, simplicity and down-to-earthness, less buying of things and less nose grinding, would go a long way to alleviate our quiet desperation.
Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
These ideals are captured in the hopeful, adventurous statement of purpose that motivated Thoreau’s experiment at Walden.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Finally, a pithy and pretty accurate rule of thumb to guide us on the Thoreaudian path to less is more.
I sent my daughter off to preschool this week with a carabiner and chalk bag for show and tell. It was a proud moment. I’ve instilled in my five-year-old a love for rock climbing, one that she’s not ashamed to share with her Disney princess friends. Now I just have to teach her and her siblings to be creative, caring, self-reliant, responsible citizens, who value their faith, education, and good work, and my job as a father will be complete.
Also, I have to teach them to climb safely.
Much of what I write at Dad vs Wild deals with encouraging kids to do difficult and sometimes dangerous things, like winter camping, catching snakes, and, most recently, rock climbing. Obviously, I buy into the hands-off parenting notion that when kids explore, discover, and overcome their challenges, especially without parental intervention, they become more competent and confident.
I’m not sure how I came to embrace this DIY, free-range parenting philosophy. Some of my research as an educational psychologist has explored what’s called inquiry-based learning, an approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to explore, pose questions, discover, and derive conclusions themselves, with minimal guidance. A related term is experiential learning.
Evidence doesn’t really support these as replacements for more structured, guided teaching and learning, but for some reason they resonate with me. Maybe because I don’t like being told what to do. I like to figure things out on my own. And I assume my kids are the same way. The result is what I’ll call inquiry-based or experiential parenting.
Of course, kids would never survive without some amount of guidance. At some point, a parent has to draw the line. Some snakes are poisonous. Some inquiry will only end in disaster. Some experiences aren’t worth the risks. Returning to my point, I think rock climbing is.
My oldest recently moved up to 5.9s in the gym. He’s only nine, but I’m already dreaming about big trips to southern Utah and the Sierra Nevadas, backpacking and climbing until we can’t remember anything else, until our blisters have blisters on them, but we don’t care. Just us and our blisters, on a remote mountain peak, under an unpolluted sky.
Speaking of dreams:
I thought climbing the Devil’s Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
I think Krakauer figured out that we shouldn’t define our lives in terms of our outdoor accomplishments. Though the mountain may inspire us and build us up, we shouldn’t hang our hat on it, because it can also let us down.
Still, the mountain may not capture our dreams, but it does give them context and provide a setting for learning, bonding, and memory making. For experiential parenting, the possibilities are endless.
It’s simple, the objective is clear, and the difficulty can be tailored to the skill level.
After the initial investment in training and gear, costs are minimal.
Climbing teaches kids to overcome fears, giving them an immediate sense of inadequacy followed by an equal measure of accomplishment.
It also teaches about trust. Your kids put their lives in your hands. You have to be the type of person who can catch them when they let go.
Related to this last point, it’s not easy for kids, or anyone, to just let go once they get to the top of a sixty-foot wall. All of my kids struggled with it at first. I’ve seen the panic in their eyes as they wonder if I’m really going to catch them. It’s a huge trust fall, wiht only me at the bottom. It reminds me of Finding Nemo. You just have to let go. It’s going to be OK. This is what DIY, experiential parenting is all about – trying, trusting, letting go, and being there for each other in the end.
I wrote here about one solution to the problems caused by overprotective parenting, a hazardous junkyard playground referred to as “the land” where kids can do things without their parent’s protection. It’s a no-fly-zone for kids with helicopter parents. I’m critical of the adventure playground because it sort of treats a symptom of overprotective parenting, scaredy-pants kids, rather than the cause, scaredy-pants parents. But I really do like the idea of leaving my kids outdoors with minimal supervision. It’s one of my favorite things to do with my kids.
Supervision is overrated
I grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento, California. For a few years we lived near what we called “the creek.” For us, this was “the land:” no parents, lots of space to build things, wreck things, and light things on fire. The creek consisted of a creek, plus some fields and trees growing so close to the creek that a bulldozer couldn’t get to them. This was California, so there may have been a law protecting the fragile crawfish ecosystems of the creek. But that law didn’t extend to the mischief of the neighborhood kids.
We constructed and destroyed many things by the creek. We also ignited many things. I learned that some things look really cool when they explode. I also gained a healthy respect for fire, and how difficult it is to extinguish, after we burned down a field. I thought this example would support my argument that kids need more freedom and less supervision, but it sounds like it does the opposite. Oh well.
The problem with overprotecting our kids is they are going to live down to our expectations. When we don’t let them do something, we convey the message that they can’t do something. They’re too small, too young, too immature. Of course, this may be true. But the parenting experts lately are saying what rednecks and some outdoorsy people have believed all along: we need to let kids do things. They’ll be fine.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for absentee parenting with no oversight, rules, or boundaries. Progress in safety standards have been helpful in some ways, for example, bike helmets and seat belts. My oldest daughter crashed hard on her bike recently and got a concussion when her head hit the road. And she was wearing a helmet. But the oversight, rules, and boundaries are getting excessive. Parenting trends have lead many of us to underestimate what a kid can do and handle.
Lately, I’m trying to say yes when one of my kids asks if they can help with something. Before considering if the request is reasonable, I say yes. Then, with some luck, I think of a way to make it age-appropriate. This morning, my daughter asked if she could have strawberries on her cereal. Yes. Can I cut them into pieces? Yes. Wait, she’s only six. Is that too young to use a knife? I have no idea. Who is in charge of deciding that? There has to be a website I can go to.
No time for websites. I stood back and she did fine. She got the strawberries out, “washed” them, cut the tops off, diced them, and shared her spoils with her siblings. She was proud of herself.
Breakfast really is a battle and a time sucker when there are five kids to feed and clean up after. Our kids often fix their own breakfast. Then, ideally, or never, they don’t leave the kitchen until their mess is cleaned up. Wipe the table, sweep up the crumbs, rinse the dishes. Kids under eight can do all these things. Kids under six can do all these things. They can also pour cereal and milk. They will spill every time. But, after two years, you won’t have to do any of it, and your kids will be much more capable and independent.
One big obstacle in letting our kids do things is our own lack of time and energy. We don’t want to clean up their mess. There’s no time to mop a batch of pancake batter off the floor. Parenting is tiring enough when the kids leave us alone. This is true and serious. I don’t have anything funny to say about it. But, a kid has to learn to make pancakes sooner or later. Why not now?
Breaking Lawn Mowers
A few weeks ago, our oldest son asked if he could mow the lawn. Last year he asked the same question, I said yes, and he mowed over some rocks. That was bad, since our lawn mower is the kind designed for grass. It’s not a rock mower. So I took the reigns for a year, and now he’s interested again. I said yes, and he did surprisingly well the first time. The second time, yesterday, he mowed the top off of a sprinkler head. Springs and shards of plastic flew across the yard. He was really scared that I would be angry, which made me sad. I was a loser and got mad last time. This time, I laughed, gave him a hug, and told him sprinklers are only like eight bucks. He said he would help pay for it. What a rad kid.
Maybe instead of asking how old a kid needs to be to mow the lawn, we should ask how many mower blades and sprinkler heads we’re willing to replace in exchange for teaching them an important skill and showing them how awesome they are? Maybe it’s less about their limitations, and more about ours. Like a kid with a lawn mower, we have no idea what we’re doing. But I think it’s going to be OK.
I’ve been reading lately about the potentially negative effects of overprotecting our children. According to Hanna Rosin, author of The Overprotected Kid, when they don’t take risks and experience “dangerous play,” our kids miss out on opportunities to overcome their fears, gain confidence, and become independent. She says:
A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery – without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution.
This “new kind of playground” essentially combines an understaffed daycare center with a junk yard. See for yourself. It’s hard to believe.
Apparently, this small wasteland exists within a suburban neighborhood in Wales. Wales is sort of part of England, in case you didn’t know. I haven’t seen the full documentary, and I haven’t been to Wales, but I’m guessing that it’s a pretty civilized place. This contrast is what makes the imagery so powerful – you see clothes lines, and well-kept brick houses, and then piles of garbage, much of it scorched or abandoned in the mud. It reminds me of Sid’s backyard in Toy Story.
I imagine there’s some small print scratched on the sheet-metal door as you crawl in: “enter at your own risk.” And that’s the point – this is a place where parents can send their kids to take risks. The article emphasizes the fact that parents almost never enter, except to “donate” tools or pallets or trash. The only supervision is provided by “playworkers” who mostly just observe, but who would intervene, I assume, if a bonfire got out of control or if someone cut a finger off. So, kids’ risk taking all happens in a confined space, down the street, while parents are at work or at home, tidying up.
At first, I thought the adventure playground was a brilliant idea. I immediately started planning the Lincoln, Nebraska version, with some major improvements, like a zipline and dirtbikes. The US invented the X-games, right? Our kids need more access to dangerous, X-treme activities at a younger age. Otherwise, we may lose our edge to countries that invented cricket and badminton.
Now, I’m not so sure. Although I highly endorse risky play, and I would be happy to see adventure playgrounds proliferate the earth, I also think that parents are primarily responsible for teaching their kids to use matches and saws, and to take risks, responsibly.
Parents Are the Problem
Much of Rosin’s article describes how parents nowadays are too protective and too sheltering. We’re over-overbearing. In the olden days, kids had much less oversight; now, we’re more present than ever in their growing-up years. And in removing the risks from childhood, we perpetuate childhood and prevent growing up. So the adventure playground is intended to be a remedy for the feeble helplessness and immaturity modern-day parents have effected in their kids. Rosin quotes a psychologist who researches these things:
Our fear of children being harmed may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.
This all makes sense to me. But I’m not certain a centralized location where kids can get harmed is the answer. Although it does free kids from their parents’ safety net, adventure playgrounds aren’t addressing the real problem – the parents.
Kids need a gradual introduction to making their own choices. This should probably start early on, like in toddlerhood, and continue until sometime between 16 and 18, when kids are essentially old enough to do whatever they want anyway. The goal here is to teach them along the way, while allowing them to take risks that are appropriate to their age level.
Who is in the best position to teach our kids? How would supervisors in the adventure playground deal with a five-year old lighting fires or catching snakes? Is that too risky? With kids of all ages running around, where do you draw the line? I think parents, not childless teenagers, should be the ones defining the realm of decisions and challenges their kids explore. And if parents can’t figure out how to set reasonable expectations, maybe they need their own risk-taking intervention.
What Can We Do About It?
For the most part, I think Rosin is spot-on. Kids need more access to unstructured and unsupervised free time. Parenting and public safety norms can place unnecessary restrictions on kids, and their growth is stunted as a result. Open public spaces, where kids can roam without rules and regulations, are dwindling. So is our connection to nature. Richard Louv writes about this in his book Last Child in the Woods. He asks,
What happens to the nation’s intrinsic creativity, and therefore the health of our economy, when future generations are so restricted they no longer have room to stretch?
We can’t yet answer that question. I hope we don’t have to. Instead, I hope we can be more thoughtful parents, more critical of how we let society, culture, and technology structure our kids’ time. The adventure playground is a step in the right direction. It provides access to the freedom that kids need to stretch and grow; it provides a place where kids can define their own society and culture, where they can develop their own technology. However, the bigger point is that parents, and not a park or school system, are ultimately responsible for their kids’ growth.
At some point in the past our oldest son smacked his head on the stairs at the playground. I can’t remember how old he was at the time – he could walk but he wasn’t in diapers, if that helps. From across the playground we heard him crying and assumed someone had smashed his sand castle, or called him a boo-boo head. Kids are always making mountains out of molehills. When he ran toward us with split in his forehead, and lots of blood, it became a legitimate mountain.
In terms of head lacerations, our oldest takes after his old man. We both had stitches three times before first grade. Mine were from:
tripping into the coffee table, and catching my fall with my face,
trying to open a door with my eyebrow, while running, and
back-flipping into the edge of a pool rather than into the water.
Headbutting the playground stairs was our son’s second ER visit. He also caught his fall once with one of his two front teeth, which ended up getting pushed upward into his gums. It was gruesome – at first, we thought he had swallowed it. So, my oldest and I both have a history of catching ourselves without using our hands, or arms, or legs. Just our head and face.
This reminds me of an injury I saw while teaching gymnastics. I was spotting a girl as she fell from the uneven bars and braced herself with her hands and arms when she hit the mat. When falling backward, it seems natural to stop your fall with your hands, but you’re supposed to sort of tuck and roll instead. This works because there aren’t any coffee tables or doorknobs nearby. Well, she put her hands back and her elbow completely dislocated and bent in the wrong direction. It was frightening to watch. Not as bad as a tooth mashed into gums, but still pretty terrible.
Most the time, I’m one of those parents who ignores their kids when they get hurt. That, or I might ask, “do you want to go home and take a nap, or keep playing?” It seems to work. They always choose “keep playing.” I also encourage activities that are usually considered unpleasant, like canoeing in the rain and camping in the winter. It’s not so much that I want my kids to be tough and brawny. Instead, I want them to be optimistic and enjoy overcoming challenges.
I’m also one of those parents who likes to do everything himself. When a pipe bursts, I spend all day soldering and re-soldering it, while an actual plumber could fix it in about 15 minutes. When my son gets stitches, I take them out at home.
I wish that last part weren’t true.
On Christmas Eve the year after the head-stair collision, the same son was spinning on the trapeze in our family room. Yes, I put a trapeze in our family room. Where else would it go? Anyway, he lost his footing when he dismounted, sending his eyebrow into the corner of our piano. There was crying, and yelling, and pressure to stop the bleeding. Next, there’s usually a moment when you assess the damage and determine if a butterfly bandage will suffice. But, given the blood flow, we didn’t even check. I just picked him up and headed for the car.
The ER at the children’s hospital was pretty tranquil at 8PM, probably because most kids were snuggled in bed dreaming of sugarplums, not performing acrobatics. We were back home in less than an hour.
A week later, not wanting to go back to the ER to have them removed, I decided to cut the stitches out in our kitchen. The doctor said they could come out in five to seven days, so the timing was right. Plus, I had seen it done once before. How hard could it be, right? Dads have been cutting out their kid’s stitches for thousands of years.
My dentist friend gave me a pair of fancy tweezers and some piña colada anesthetic. After numbing the area, I started snipping and pulling. I was feeling pretty good about my surgical skills until the last stitch. That’s when I realized I was out of my league, that my red-neck confidence had gotten me into trouble. I’m not a red-neck, or a the kind of doctor that helps people. As soon as the final thread was cut, my son’s brow popped open like it was never closed. No blood or pain – just a gaping wound that now needed to be restitched. My training had not prepared me for this.
I wasn’t looking forward to another ER visit, putting my son through all the trauma of needles next to his eye. So, I called my doctor friend, who ended up cleaning and super-gluing the cut in his kitchen. He told me that the wound should have closed by then, and that I shouldn’t feel bad about removing the stitches myself, that he would have done the same thing. That made me feel a little better.
The moral of this story: don’t remove your kid’s stitches yourself, unless you’re a true red-neck, or the kind of doctor that helps people.
I guess there’s another lesson to be learned: trapezes, like uneven bars, should be in a gym rather than a family room.