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Free Range Kids

July 17, 2009

DSC03079One of the great things about climbing is getting to hang-out with other people. Unless you’re crazy it’s a partner sport at it’s core. You need to develop trust in your belay partner, and they need to be able to read your actions before you make them. I suppose this is why you see so many couples getting into rock climbing. The transcendence of qualities a good relationship requires into a sport. Anyhow, recently I’ve been going out with my climbing partner, his sister, brother-in-law, and his nephew. As a couple his sister and brother-in-law are very cute. They’re always super supportive of each other, looking out for one another, and along with the standard safety check always kiss before heading up the rock. But more than emulating a happy couple, to me they emulate wonderful parents. Some may disagree with me. Some may see a mother scaling down a perilous 4th class scramble with her child in a backpack and cry out “Bad Mother!”. I just smile. I watch the way they raise their son, and I think it’s very much how I’d like to raise my kids one day.
Not that I’m ready to have kids anytime soon. Heck, I can hardly take care of my cat right now. Once you have kids you’re basically picking up another full-time job and saying good-bye to your personal freedom as you know it. Plus you need a… ummm, what do you call those things? Oh yeah, girlfriends. But when the day comes I think I’m ready. I’m excited to watch my offspring grow and learn. Teach them dumb jokes, how to recognize trees and constellations, tie knots, climb trees, and how to draw. I think it’ll be fun. But I think too many parents take the fun out of raising kids these days, and as a result take the fun away from the kids. When the above said couple take little Owen out climbing with us they don’t take out a small inflatable crib, line it with blankets and safety nets to protect him. They let him crawl across the rocks, roll in the dirt, and splash in the water. They’re there constantly watching, protecting him from any fatal areas, but they’re never patrolling so close to remove an important lesson from Owen: like gravity, the coldness of water in the shade, or hardness of the rock. While you can teach a child what plants to stay away from, how to hold onto a climbing surface, and not to put foreign objects in their mouth you can’t teach confidence, wisdom, or experience. Those are all attributes they must learn for themselves. And the best thing I think a parent can do is to give their child an environment in which they can explore, discover, and let their own personalities and strengths germinate naturally.

I stumbled across a very cool blog by author of the book, Free-Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy. She made head-lines a year ago when she let her 9-year old ride the NYC subways by himself. She was accosted, called an awful mother, and attacked by whole avalanche of media out-lash. But she was quick to defend herself. Personally, the coolest kids I’ve ever met were brought everywhere, let loose, and got to figure things out for themselves. They learn how to behave around adults, become self-sufficient, and just more confident and neater kids in general. I think between the internet, a thousand television channels, and intrusive entertainment vehicles, kids these days have so many avenues of stimulus telling them what to do, where to go, and how to act. It’s a tough time being a kid, and I think if parents don’t let their children learn their own lessons at times it’s only making things tougher. I’m not saying we should let kids go off into the world by themselves. But as Lenore Skenazy mentions in her book, the world is not as dangerous as people make it out to be. And kids will always surprise you with their intelligence, independence, and ingenuity.

Granted I’m no child psychologist, but I can speak on a personal account. I think one of the greatest steps in the development of who I am today came from an outdoor camp I attended when I was younger. During the camp I learned how to read a map, cook my own food, and name the plants and animals of the wild. One of the best things about the outdoors is that you get to see life as it was without the convenience of modern appliances. It’s great to immerse kids in this environment. Not because they will need to know how to start a fire from scratch, how to pick a good campsite, or navigate using the stars. It’s great because you show them that they can. Like David Polis once said,

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.”

Or to quote an even greener source Walt Whitman, “Now I see the secret of making the best persons. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”

When my brother was in town we went climbing out in Ojai. There was a mother with her two daughters that joined our group for climbing. Before she let her kids go off and play in the stream she had them wear bike helmets. My brother turned to me and said, “Aren’t you glad Mom was never so protective?” Very glad. Sure I may have some scars from some of the occasional falls I would take, but because of those falls I know my own limits. I’m glad my Mom let me roam in the forests with just our dogs to watch me and let my brother and I catch bull frogs by the pond instead of restlessly kicking each other under the table at dinner. She let us roam free and just be kids, and I think that is the greatest gift any parent can give to their children.

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