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.