Giving Kids Freedom To Explore & Be Alone

silo1I grew up in what is now a well-know neighborhood on the east side of Wichita just outside of Andover, KS.  We moved there when I was 9 and back then, it was just a culdesac of houses out in the middle of some fields.  In time, the city grew around it as did other neighborhoods.  I remember when they dug the underpass for the highway.  I remember when the fields I used to play in became a gas station.  I remember when they knocked down the old silo we used to climb to build a housing development.  I remember when they built a bank next to the pond where I used to go to catch wild turkeys.  Everything changed.  The fields of prairie grass I used to run through as a boy on the outskirts of Wichita are now a laundromat, a hotel, condos, and the K-96/Kansas Turnpike Interchange.  It was inevitable…Wichita was (and is) a city rapidly expanding, searching for her borders.

sandpilesWhen I was 9 I would come home from school, grab my bike, and head out the door to the familiar tune of my mother’s voice saying, “Be back in time for dinner!”  That was it.  “Be back in time for dinner.”  Simple.  What was there to be worried about?  We were kids surrounded by fields with dirt bikes.  We were free.  Our parents didn’t hover over us, ask a million questions, and go play with us on a injury-proof playground.  They trusted us…like their parents had trusted them.  My sneaker-clad feet peddled as hard and fast as I could as my Huffy BMX dirt bike whisked me away to…well…the dirt.  That’s where dirt bikes go!  For us it was “The Sandpit.”  The Sandpit was a few acres of fields, trees, streams, thorn bushes, and giant 50 foot high piles of sand for the golf course that occupied the majority of the rural block my neighborhood was located in.  Later in life we’d race go-carts here, build airplanes from broken pallets and scrap wood, and rickety tree forts 30 feet above the ground.  We’d set off fireworks, catch frogs, have stick fights, have real fights, and just…be…kids.

That place doesn’t exist anymore.

When the brick walls of the new housing development sign went up and the fields were dug into deep pits for future ponds, it was the end of an era.  It was also the end of a certain way of parenting.  The dangers of life were catching up to us (or so we may say).  The Sandpit is now a winding row of mansions where the wealthiest of Wichita reside with golf course views, private ponds, water fountains, statues, and smooth sidewalks.  Parents ride bikes with their kids as SUVs slowly crawl along the street giving way to golf-carts.  There are no sticks to be found for stick fighting.  There is no dirt to play in, only manicured lawns.  No one has started a bonfire in the woods for over 2 decades…they’d be arrested!  It is Suburbia.

Dodge in the backyard
Dodge in the backyard

I was recently sitting in the backyard of my house with friends discussing how things have changed.  My boys played in the background as they climbed on their fort, kicked soccer balls, and pretended to be race cars.  The discussion was about how people (myself included at times) had become hover parents despite our efforts to not helicopter around.  I pride myself on not hovering, but circumstances simply don’t allow it (or so we may say).  We live in a neighborhood with city traffic, though our street is a quiet tree-lined family street, we are just 1 block off a major thoroughfare.  I have a fence and inside the confines of my yard…anything goes.  Outside?  “Max…stay close to Dada!  Dodge, take that out of your mouth!”  I am a hover parent.  Hover-ish.  I don’t lord over my kids at the playground and follow them around…but I do recognize dangerous potential and try to steer them away from it.  However, if I see one of them is going to fall and get hurt I tend to let it slide.  Not the kind of hurt where we go to the hospital but the kind of hurt where you skin a knee or bonk your head.  The kind of hurt you learn from.  I stop other parents from stopping my kid.  “Let them fall.”  I say.  Then they do.  Then they cry.  So I ask them, “What happened?”  They tell me, and by the time they are done explaining they are not in pain anymore.  I ask them, “Are you okay?”  They say they are.  I ask them if they want to keep playing and off they go.  Whatever hurt them before they are now naturally cautious of because they learned.  Sitting on the back porch Max trips and falls hands first and gives himself a stinger in the arm.  Dodge later walks without looking and bonks his head on the patio table.  My wife Kate and I brush it off and the kids do too.  Turns out the other couple sitting with us has just read the same article we have.  Their kids are all grown up so we have a perfect generational gap to discuss between their parents, my parents, their childhood, our childhood, their kids’ childhood, and our kids’ childhood.  It makes for fantastic conversation over beers and the first sunny day of Spring.  The discussion is spurred by 2 things:

  1. An article about an adventure playground in Wales called “The Land”
  2. Our visit to the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plain, KS that morning
Photo by Hanna rosin at "The Land"
Photo by Hanna Rosin at “The Land”

The article about “The Land” is one of my most favorite reads in recent history and I highly recommend it.  It is a long read so settle in.  However, it is an amazing recounting of how we got to become helicopter parents, what inspired it, and how places like “The Land” combat it.  It is called “The Overprotected Kid” in The Atlantic.  In it, the author (Hanna Rosin) tells the story of how the “tornado slide” and other unregulated playground equipment changed the scope of outdoor playtime for our children.  “The Land” is an outdoor space where kids can start fires, dig in the mud, and do what kids do…explore their surroundings.  After having read this amazing article I found myself at the Bartlett Arboretum for a private tour with a dozen other adults…and my two kids: Max (3) and Dodge (1).  Robin Macy, former founder of the Dixie Chicks and current steward of the Arboretum, gave the talk as we adults listened.  Max grew restless…he’s a kid…he could care less about the history of the place or the name of a tree…he just saw open space and wanted to explore.  “I’m going right here to this rock Dada.”  Max told me.  I replied, “Okay.”  I could tell he would soon be going much farther than that rock and was sad that I would miss Robin’s talk.  Then I thought of the article about “The Land” and a simple term Kate and I used to say when people asked why we moved to Kansas from New York:  “Good dirt.”  I remember the first time Max put a wad of Kansas dirt in his mouth and spat it out.  I wasn’t worried about him catching some disease or picking up a shard of glass from living in New York City…I just thought, “good dirt.”  I forgot about that somewhere along the line when Dodge was born and started trying to over manage these kids.  So, at the Bartlett Arboretum on a lovely Saturday morning I decided to see how far Max wanted to go…and man did he go!

Dodge in the pit
Dodge in the pit

At first he started testing me by going a few feet farther and farther away from where he said he would play.  I paid no mind and let him go.  Then he asked, “What’s that?”  Pointing at a garden about 100 feet away.  I explained that it was a garden with paths and if he wanted to stay on the path and take his little brother Dodge with him I didn’t mind if he went exploring.  Max took Dodge by the hand and the two of them explored.  Every now and then I glimpsed over and would catch sight of Max ushering Dodge away from something, playing a game, tossing rocks, and being…boys.  It was hard to not go join in (being a child at heart) but this was important for them.  Max needed to feel responsible for Dodge, and Dodge wanted to know that he had control over things in this tiny world.  When the tour moved into the garden where the boys were I was shocked to see there was a huge stone pit with big rock steps down to it.  My first reaction was not fear…but pride.  I was so proud of my son Max for keeping Dodge away from the pit.  That was what he was doing when he was ushering Dodge around.  He wasn’t playing a game or asserting control for no reason.  He was being a good big brother.  He was doing what brothers do – look out for each other.

Max at the Arboretum
Max at the Arboretum

That was the last I saw of Max for a while.  Dodge wanted to toddle around and Max wanted to run…so Max ran.  He crossed the bridge and headed for the meadow and for the first time in his life went someplace alone in nature.  There were no adults around, no other kids, nothing…just good dirt.  I don’t know where he went but he showed up about 5 minutes later by a grove of trees then took off running again while waving a stick around in the air like a sword.  Our paths intersected at the train depot and he took off running to touch the windmill out in the field by the wood pile.  I suspect he would have kept on going if a train hadn’t come along slowly blowing its whistle and scaring him to death.  It was impossible for him to get to the train as there was a creek, a fence, and a hillock between him and the tracks…but he didn’t know that and came running back to me.  We explored the path by the river together and talked about the trains.  Then we got back to the meadow and he was off again, running through the fields and over the bridges.  I helicoptered over Dodge who was dead set on falling in the creek that day and if it was a little warmer I would have let him just to learn a lesson…though at 1 the propensity for repeat trial and error is high.  Max had the day of his life and has asked about the Arboretum every day since.  It was his first time alone in nature…that is an amazing feeling!  We’ll be going back on a regular basis now.

No More Sandpit
No More Sandpit

The sun was setting on the back porch as we finished our beers and talked about the Arboretum and “The Land.”  We recounted the old days before The Sandpit was a housing development and the sledding hill was a highway.  I asked, “What’s the closest to death you think you came to when we were kids?”  All of us had to think for a long time, not because we had no answer…because we had so many.  For me it was when they dug those pits that would be ponds with fountains one day at The Sandpit.  They made the ponds and the roads first so buyers could see what their view would be like.  For us kids it was still our playground when the construction workers were done and we rode our bikes everywhere.  Winter came and dropped a few inches of ice on everything and blanketed Wichita in a thin veil of snow.  Clad in snow-pants we trudged through the crunchy ice/snow to get to our silo where we hid the treasures we found in the world like lunch pails, golf clubs, and money.  On our way back we took the usual route through The Sandpit we had for years…now directly over one of the ponds.  I remember the sound it made when the ice cracked and how it sounded deep below me like a spring in a tunnel.  It didn’t break at first and I was sure if I kept running I’d be fine.  Then it felt like I was being stabbed all over my body and everything was dark.  Even my eyes felt like they were being stabbed.  I was under the ice.  It was a pond so there was no current and I resurfaced almost immediately though it felt like I was underwater for an hour.  The ice I grabbed onto around the hole broke away and my snow-boots felt like lead weights pulling me down.  I kept grabbing at ice, it kept breaking, and my body went numb and everything slowed.  Then finally a bit of ice didn’t break and I eventually found myself crawling across the ice to the shore.  Terror was on my face as well as my best friend’s.  I almost died and the thought racing through my head was, “I am so grounded!”  I ran home, hid my clothes, took a hot shower, and never told my parents what happened that day.  As you are reading this I guarantee you my phone is ringing…its my mom reading this for the first time in horror.

Sorry Mom.

[UPDATE: My mom called 3 hours after this published]

Dodge by the Treehouse
Dodge by the Treehouse

I think dangerous situations come with exploring your surroundings.  With good dirt comes thin ice and fast trains.  I can tell you I’ve never gone out on the ice since with the exception of Lake George and only when I’m with people who know the ice.  I promise you Max won’t go near the train tracks because we’ve talked about those trains every day since.  Live and learn…that’s the expression right?  Somewhere between my kids having total freedom and me helicoptering is where I want to be as a parent.  I know that’s a broad spectrum but so is parenting.  I want Max to run, I want Dodge to eat worms, I want my kids to have secrets between them…but I want them to be safe.  There’s the operative word:  “Safe.”  I think for every parent they have to discern what “safe” means to them based on their surroundings, comfort level, and the kid’s ability to handle responsibility…but if we don’t give them responsibility how will they learn?  How will we know if they are responsible.  We build it up.  Right now Max can play in the back yard by himself and Dodge can if Max is with him.  There are things that they can hurt themselves with there…but they are learning to be responsible around them.  Eventually I hope they will be out the door and I will be calling after them saying, “Be back in time for dinner!”  I cherish my childhood and I have my parents to thank for it.  Nowadays, Kate’s parent’s motto is “If we don’t hear from you we assume things are great.”  That’s the message they sent their kids off to college with.  How cool!  Freedom to explore.

Bartlett Arboretum
Bartlett Arboretum

Yesterday I attended the memorial service of a friend.  One of the first of our motley crew to pass away.  33 years old.  It turns out we are not invincible, not everyone comes up through the hole in the ice, and some of us won’t be home for dinner.  This has presented me with the conundrum of wanting to let my kids roam free while holding them close so nothing bad ever happens to them.  That is parenting…right there.  Wanting better for your kids.  Maybe they don’t need better?  Maybe they need more of the same?  I’m alive…and I have my parents to thank for that, and myself.  Yeah…I fell through the ice one day when I was a kid…but I also called my parents to come pick me up from a high school party when my ride got drunk and I didn’t feel safe getting home.  I got busted drinking beers in the back yard and instead of threatening my life my dad let me drink with him so long as I was willing to stay in for the night and hang out with him.  By the time I graduated college I was a square…got it all out of my system in high school.  How?  My parents’ trust.  I don’t think they trusted me to always make the right decision, but they trusted me to figure out how to get out of a situation and ask for help when I needed it.  If they didn’t hear from me they assumed things were fine…and things were fine.  So I’m just going to keep parenting my kids the way my parents did and the way my wife’s parents did, and instill trust in my kids.

There are more dangers in life now (so they may say)…or are we just hyper aware of them because of the internet, regulations of playgrounds, and less sandpits surrounded by fields?  I think kids need time alone.  They need time alone in their rooms to play, pretend, and read.  They need time alone in nature where they can swing a stick and run like the wind!  They need their own shelf in the refrigerator where they can get their own snacks and drinks.  They need their own privacy when and where they don’t feel like they are being watched…and they know when they are being watched.  They behave differently when they aren’t being watched.  They need secrets.  We have secrets…why shouldn’t they?  So don’t be shocked if Kate and I move out to the country one day…we’re just continuing our search for good dirt and the life decisions (and possible hazards) that come with it.

Max running across the meadow from the sound of the train.
Max running across the meadow from the sound of the train.
The Bartlett Arboretum. Max is somewhere out there.
The Bartlett Arboretum. Max is somewhere out there.

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