My best friend and I had BB guns and bikes, with free reign of our neighborhood and the adjacent river, woods, and small cliffs. We fed squirrels, caught fish, chased snakes, dug up clams, collected cicada shells, killed scorpions, and trapped rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. We slept outside, we shot at everything that moved (with very little effect), and spent hours in nature making shelters and booby traps and various “itching powders.”
Wendy can similarly remember the freedom of a having Huffy bicycle with not much more restriction than a general rule about returning home when the streetlights turned on.
We worry a lot that we’re hovering too much around our own kids and not allowing them the freedoms to explore and create that we enjoyed. Our own experiences like these seem to have played so much a part in who we became and how we think. So what will it someday mean that my children’s biggest current adventure is sneaking a second sample from the old lady at Costco?
Like all our peers, we assume that the world is a lot more dangerous now than it used to be, although it’s certainly not. And we say that you “just can’t do that kind of thing anymore,” even though you surely can.
I think we actually just worry uncontrollably about our kids getting hurt or making mistakes or even just getting scared. We care so much for their wellbeing that we can’t allow them the freedom to have experiences where they learn cause and effect, where they learn the limits of nature, or where they face daunting challenges alone. But without those terrifying opportunities, how equipped will they be for adult life?
I recently had an employee’s mom call me to say that he was sick and couldn’t come in to work. Yes: an adult employee of mine called his mom and had his mom call me. That really happened. So, I wonder, is that where my own kids are headed in a decade because I’m too afraid to let them ride their bikes around the neighborhood?
Two years ago, the Ensign had an article on this parenting dilemma:
One of the challenges facing parents today is a tendency to hover over their children and become overprotective to the point of being so involved that children can’t function or make decisions for themselves….Such parents have wonderful intentions. However, by constantly hovering over their children, they send a message that they have little faith that their son or daughter can make it through the day without their aid….This parenting style competes with the gospel teaching that during our mortal probation, we will and must face trials, heartaches, and struggles. These challenges can serve to develop our character, force our identity, strengthen our faith, and expand our commitment to the Savior.
The author identifies five action items to help combat this destructive temptation of being a hovering parent: 1. Give them opportunities to be independent, 2. Teach them to work, 3. Let them learn about consequences, 4. Stand up for rules and standards, and 5. Allow them to have heartaches and setbacks.
We’ve been trying to do this and it’s helping. I’m still going to be the dad who stands at the bus stop and pokes his head in class. I don’t think that will ever totally change. But we’ve been gradually pushing ourselves into the discomfort of allowing more late nights, more neighborhood wandering, more biking to the gas station, and more doing things alone.
Sometimes we do call or text every five minutes. But in at least a few instances over the last months, we looked up and realized that we didn’t know exactly where our kids were at that exact moment. What an accomplishment!
We’ve also been trying to engage in more adventurous and “dangerous” activities for the kids. On an early (and painfully low-tech) TED talk, Gever Tulley recommended six “dangerous things you should let your kids do” to help them develop creativity, confidence, and a sense of control over the environment around them. These included playing with fire, owning a pocket knife, throwing a spear, deconstructing an appliance, driving a car in a parking lot, and illegally downloading music.
I’m not sure about illegally downloading music. We haven’t taken apart an appliance yet. And I don’t own any spears (although I’m asking for an atlatl for Christmas). But we’ve invested heavily in pocket knives, parking lot driving, and playing with fire. Especially playing with fire.
We’ve been playing with fire a lot lately and it’s been wonderful. In his TED talk, Tulley describes the significance of this activity in a child’s development: “learning to control one of the most elemental forces in nature is a pivotal moment in any child’s personal history” because it represents one of the first times that a person realizes they can manipulate and control a mysterious, powerful, and even dangerous force.
We bought a simple, covered fire pit for the back yard and have built several fires this summer. Every time, one of the kids (or one of their friends) has had to help chop the wood, lay the fire, and light the kindling. Lately, we’ve also included trying to cook on an open fire. And we’ve also experimented with a “rocket stove” made from cinder blocks.
This last weekend, Isaac had a friend over to play for a late night. They had all kinds of fun, and we ended the night with a fire. They helped me set it, and his friend lit the fire. Then, for the ultimate experience, we gave them a large tub of coffee creamer to throw by the handful into the fire, creating huge flares of flame.
Soon they were having contests to see not only who could make the biggest flare, but also who could create the coolest shaped fireball. Isaac’s friend won this contest hands down with a flare that looked so strikingly like a rising phoenix that I haven’t been able to stop looking back at the picture of it.
I can’t know for sure what exactly they learned that night. It’s likely that a high-school chemistry lesson on combustion will “click” for them someday. It’s possible that their sense of self and their relationship with their environment was heightened. And perhaps they even had some small glimpse, yet unrealized, into the majesty and power of the universe. I just can’t know.
But I do know they had a lot of fun. When we brought Isaac’s friend home late that night, his mom asked how it had gone. He beamed, “It was the greatest night ever!”