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Kerrying On

Surviving Freedom

As a child, my parents fiercely protected me. At their insistence, I remained close to home and under their tight watch. And then, one day in early 1959, they let go. When I turned thirteen, my Mom and Dad either tired of regulating my every move or began to trust me. Either way, it was as if the door to my cage had been left unlocked. Since my friends were similarly liberated, it wasn’t long until a small band of thirteen-year-old boys was roaming the area around Bellingham Bay, mostly unfettered, and completely unsupervised. We didn’t know it, but we had entered our Huck Finn years.

During this period of newly-granted independence, my friends and I became one with the earth and her treasures. We walked for miles along her pine needle paths in a quest to discover caves, explore abandoned buildings, scale cliffs, build rafts, and gaff dogfish. We ran barefoot across tide flats and meadows as we chased each other with kelp whips, puffballs, and rose-hip seeds (nature’s itching powder).

We didn’t merely explore the earth’s surface; we attacked it. We tore into the hillside to make caves, cut down trees to build forts and rafts, and heaped up massive sandcastles on tide flats. And then (as the returning water crept back), we fought to keep the flowing enemy from devouring our towers. If this wasn’t earthy enough, we played mumblety-peg, a pocketknife game that required the loser to pull a three-inch, hand carved peg out of the earth (with only his teeth)—painting his mouth, gums, and face with dark brown muck.

Having little money, we were provided for by Mother Earth until we returned home each day. For a taste of nature’s menu, we chewed sour grass and sipped from honeysuckles. As our hunger grew, we dined from the fruit of the thorny Himalayan blackberry vines that spread across the countryside like an angry rash. As we moved into the forest, we switched to huckleberries, salmon berries, and black caps. If we stumbled on a tree laden with ripe cherries, pears, or apples, we gorged on the bonanza and moved on, grimacing from the inevitable upset stomach that followed. On a dare, we chewed wild rhubarb.

As we grew more experienced, stronger, and confident, we commandeered materials from our parents. Once equipped, we built rope swings that soared thirty feet into the air. We constructed tree houses that hid us from adults. When July rolled around, we built rockets of all types. Should a rocket start a fire in the dry grass near the shore, we’d beat out the flames with wet burlap bags, strip to our cut-off jeans, and emit a savage howl as we leaped triumphantly into the bay.

We did all of this unlicensed cavorting on foot because we came from one-car families. Plus, we had a desire for seclusion. This meant that on the days we hiked to Cedar Lake, we walked five miles simply to arrive at the trailhead and another two miles up Chuckanut Mountain to get to the lake. When we arrived, it would be our voices, and our voices alone, that echoed across the mist-covered water. Jogging hadn’t been invented yet, mountain biking was unheard of, and clothing outfitters hadn’t popularized hiking. Consequently, on most of our excursions, when we arrived at our destination we were completely alone. Exactly the way we liked it.

Had we slipped into a hole in the earth on any one of these sorties, nobody would have ever found us. Our parents would never have known where to look because we gave them phony itineraries. We told our folks that we were going to safe, well-groomed parks near our homes so they wouldn’t worry about the dangers we’d face when we practiced spelunking and free-climbing without a shred of equipment or know-how.

Our folks had no idea that when the canneries jutting over the bay closed for the day, the gigantic steel tubs used to haul crabs out of fishermen’s boats were repurposed by us as we stood inside them and mechanically lowered ourselves into the water—competing for who could descend the deepest. On days our parents thought we were playing safely in a nearby park, we were waiting for the tide to go out, so we could jump from a cannery roof sixty feet in the air into ten feet of water. With each leap, our bare feet dug deep into thousand-year-old muck, the earth providing us the cushion we needed as we knifed into the bay. We did all this unbeknownst to our parents. For three years, my buddies and I scampered across, fed from, and explored the earth—unnoticed and unimpeded. She was our laboratory, cafeteria, and playground.

Should one of today’s helicopter parents look back at what my friends and I did, they’d be mortified by our casual recklessness. My mom would have been mortified had she not been so busy taking college courses and working two jobs. To be honest, I can’t believe that we, the feral boys of Bellingham, actually survived unharmed.

Now for the intriguing part. According to a recent study exploring how certain parents had reared several extraordinarily successful adults within the same family, the freedom my friends and I enjoyed might actually have been to our benefit. Child-rearing research suggests that a “free-range childhood” fuels a sense of confidence and independence that can lead to superior accomplishment later in life. More than a few scholars are now suggesting that if you want your offspring to truly excel as adults, retire the helicopter—or at least give it a rest.

But who can do that? If I had teenage kids today, I’d never allow them to roam the earth like my friends and I did. Unsupervised cavorting is just as dangerous today as it was fifty years ago. But, then again, I’d hate to think that risk-averse parenting might come at the cost of the next generation’s confidence and independence. Plus, there’s the fact that adopting a hands-off approach isn’t exactly an untested idea. When it comes to the workplace, non-hovering leadership is referred to as empowerment, and empowerment has generally proven to be a good thing. Just ask the empowered.

So what’s a person to do? I, for one, can’t imagine purposely exposing adolescents to unnecessary risks. Nevertheless, the earth will most certainly call out to them. She’ll offer up her fruits and spread forth her tide flats. She’ll tempt our youngsters to scramble across her boulders and swim in her streams. And they’ll answer. You can bet on that. So, be prepared. Take the time to teach your offspring safe practices. Warn them of common dangers and excessive risks. Empower them with skills that help them flourish in the freedom of nature’s classroom. And most important of all, refuse the sucker’s choice that says you can raise kids to be either safe or self-assured. Aim for both. Your kids deserve no less.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

20 thoughts on “Surviving Freedom”

  1. Mr. Patterson,

    As a 55 year old man and father I read your article and I longed for my youthful days of freedom as well. Today’s threats to our children are so different and lethal we have lost so much it saddens me. Regardless, I continue to hike our national parks and love what God Almighty has given us to play in. Thank you for allowing me to explore your back yard with you. Care to hike the AT with me some day?

    God’s Speed

  2. Thanks for a great article and challenge for our raising of our youth. As a grandpa, I enjoy teaching my grandkids the fun of rope swings, fishing holes, puddles, and pocketknives. My kids look at me with askance and trust that I’ll keep their darling safe. Now, the challenge is to teach my kids to turn loose – with themselves and their prodigy.

  3. I understand this article could only address general topics in the last paragraph. One of the greatest dangers to our children today is opioid and heroin addiction. Unfortunately this can begin with legal drug prescriptions for pain control after injuries or surgeries. States now describe overdose deaths as having reached epidemic proportions. If your child is facing an imminent overdose death, the over-the-counter antidote Naloxone will immediately safe a life. It’s recommended that parents have a supply on hand. Many States have a Good Samaritan law that allows a companion to call 911 for the overdose of a friend without pacing prosecution for drug use.

    1. I once saw a poster of Robin Williams with a quote saying, “if you need alcohol or drugs to have a good time: you’re doing it wrong.” This needs to be inside every school in all countries. Unfortunately, this is part of the new dangers and risks we must attempt to teach them. Suburbia has changed since “the good ol’ days!”

  4. Thank you for this article. It reminded me of biking miles with my friends to go to the lake, or play kick the can with the neighborhood kids and since there were no fences, all yards were “in bounds”. The rules were you were home for dinner and when the street lights came on. Other than that, most of town was fair game. It was a wonderful way to grow up and we tried, within reason, to allow our children the same type of freedom.
    But I know things have changed and raising children is so much more complex. But I agree with the basic premise that children who are trusted and allowed to explore and maybe even push the envelope a bit are much more resilient and capable adults.

  5. Dear Kerry,

    Oh how I loved this article! Your superb imagery and magical memories put a huge smile on my face this morning. It brought back similar summer memories for me at my G’pa and G’ma’s place on the Green River in eastern Utah. Jumping haystacks, climbing trees, feeling freedom from my citified life back home.

    Thank you for sharing your talents with the world.

  6. Thank you. Your memories helped me recall my childhood with 5 brothers, 14 sisters, mom and dad. I always try to imagine how they managed to raise us. I chose not to have children, but every weekend I had nieces and nephews, whose parents were working, stay with me. We had so much fun hiking, biking, movies, picnics, drive inns, and road trips. My weekends are now spent with great and great, great nieces and nephews supporting their interests, softball, volleyball, back to school nights, school projects in the kitchen and in the back yard, hiking, biking, playground and sleep-overs. They each put a smile on my face, tears of joy and keep me young. Thanks again. Truly loved reading and the visual memories of your childhood. God Bless.

  7. Your story brought back so many similar happy childhood memories! Thanks for the reassurance that we can raise our children to be both safe and self assured. With so much time spent in the technology age, our children as well as adults sometimes miss the wonder of discovery when traversing in “earthly” play! So many life lessons and much personal fulfillment occurs with these “earthly” adventures!

  8. You deserve applause for your skill with the words that describe this amazing childhood! I moved my family from just outside Los Angeles to Noth Jersey on a river. My kids were 5 and 7. In winter, you could pick up a horse or pony for free from parents whose kids were leaving for college. For them, wintering a horse with no rider at home was foolishly expensive. We had horses, hatched and raised ducks, 60 chickens and geese. I received a state license to raise infant, orphant raccoons who survived traps set for raccoons mothers were in chimneys, and hunters. Soon, my son and his buddies formed a “rat pack” and tamed the river and miles of open acreage near our homes. They hung ropes on trees each year to swing into the river, braved the risks of large snapping turtles, and on and on. BUT, where can parents do this in our cities? I am forever grateful for our good fortune of the job opportunity that opened in NJ!!

  9. I enjoyed your article very much! it brings back many memories of the “good ole days” I sure miss that time.
    Thanks for making me smile

  10. Thanks, great article. It brings me to my childhood (I grew up in Chile) and the things we did as child, the freedom that I had to explore places and do things, some really stupid and dangers. It’s so sad that kids now days can’t experiences life as we did, without much danger around them. I enjoy this article very much.

  11. I always enjoy reading your articles! You tell great stories and I find that I not only learn something, I am reminded of someone or something that helped shape me.

    thank you for sharing!

  12. Such a refreshing article Kerry! First off, hello from Bellingham. I can relate to your childhood experience which embodied freedom.
    One issue I see with today’s youth and even work environment is the over planning and micro task management.
    How do we achieve balance and freedom to explore and create without being micro managed? Is it possible in the age of dependence on social media and reduced awareness of our natural environment?

    Thank you for the wisdom!

  13. I grew up in the 60s and 70s and your experience could have been mine exactly (except that I was a girl). From ages 10-14, we lived in a house that backed up to woods with a creek, and beyond that, a subdivision that was slowly being constructed. I remember building tree houses, spending hours building a dam for the creek (why??), riding bikes for miles and miles, catching bugs, catching snakes, eating wild onions, and climbing the skeletal frames of new houses with their sweet lumber smell. The construction burn pile provided an endless supply of nails and wood for the creation of tree houses and forts. Once I caught a baby copperhead and brought it home. My dad wanted to kill it, but I wouldn’t let him and took it back to the woods where I’d found it. As I got older, my friends and I snuck off to smoke cigarettes, meet boys, and walk to the mall to buy a slice of pizza. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. 🙂

  14. I loved reading your story and couldn’t agree more with your assessment that if parents smartly retired their helicopters, kids would learn the joy and freedom that comes from being independent. Yes, in today’s world, it has to be done responsibly but as a successful 54 year old, the freedom my parents gave me at a young age to learn to become my own person was a true blessing. Thank you for sharing your journey-I could taste the huckleberries as I was reading your tales of joy!

  15. Touchee to all of the unfettered children of the 50s and 60s and beyond! I totally enjoyed my childhood with my friends, without money and with pedal transportation. Thank you Kerry for the warm memories of a bygone era. As parents, my husband and I helicoptered our son as needed, then gave him his freedom in sports. The camaraderie the boys, and their parents, had equaled the freedoms of our youth. Thanks again!

  16. My kids worked at a summer camp during the summers (starting at 12). This was a “safe place” where they were given tons of responsibility, but also some supervision. But they didn’t have hovering parents, how they worked was a reflection on themselves, and they were able to do lots of fun things outdoors. I know the summer experiences they had over the years gave my daughters so much confidence and many life lessons.

  17. Mr. Patterson, if your mother is still alive, talk to her about this time in your life. I suspect you will find out she knew all about your adventures growing up. Mine sure did, although we had no idea. Many years later when we were discussing the old homestead, she said to me, “I knew all of that, I chose not to bring it up and to let you experience all the world had to offer you.” She then said “do you think you were the first generation to find the creek in the woods and go skinny-dipping on a hot summer afternoon.”

    This brought a new understanding to our relationship of mother and adult child.

  18. Yes, I remember those care-free days of discovery. My parents had instilled in my sound values and so that kept me out of trouble, but didn’t dampen my free spirit of adventure. I feel sorry for today’s kids. I’m sure the same things which are happening today, happened then, but with instant news feeds, we are just exposed more now.
    I believe by letting your children be “free spirits” and with good parenting to back this up, we are building resilience in our children.
    Great discoveries are made, by trying something different.

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