Adventures in the Woods

Michael Chabon's essay,  “The Wilderness of Childhood,” in the New York Review of Books has gotten some well deserved attention from the blogosphere. I thought I would add my two cents on the subject.

Chabon writes about the adventures that he had as a kid exploring around the neighborhood, with no adult supervision. He said that he grew up with breath-taking liberty. But that's all gone.

The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been
abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the
Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned
by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked staff only. When
children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for
battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.

Chabon believes that his childhood adventures and explorations helped to fuel his writer's imagination. What will future writers draw upon for inspiration? It's a really nice piece. Worth a read.

Russell Arben Fox and Tim Burke respond. There's no question that Chabon is right that our kids aren't getting the free reign that we did as kids. Witness the discussion yesterday on this blog about whether or not a 12 year old could responsibly watch a 3 year old at the mall.

Tim says that there is still plenty of room for childhood explorations. Parents can accompany their kids on trips to the woods and explore video games and cartoons together. This will open up new story lines for fiction writers. Tim writes, "But I could easily see that we could have a new wave of stories where
adults and children deal with adventure together without the grown-ups
making all the choices." 

Russell is less optimistic than Tim. He seems most concerned about the solitude of the kids. Even if you set your kid outside with a bike to explore the world, there is no one to join him. Russell writes,

Imagination–even the imagination of a child on his or her own,
navigating their fragmentary, mental map of secure locations and danger
zones and unmarked paths in their own heads–is a collective effort;
that "lore" Chabon mentions came from and through someone, many
someones. Brothers and sisters, cousins and schoolmates, friends and
enemies.

It's probably not accidental that this discussion came up in the summer. This is the time when we wrest control of our kids from the schools and mold them ourselves. This topic has been very much discussed at home over the past few weeks, as I decide how to structure or unstructure the kids' time. Just one story…

Jonah's fancy camp ends after the third week of July. My mom called with information about a soccer camp for that last week. She said that she would pay for the camp, because it would give me another week to get work done, Jonah will have an advantage in soccer games in the fall, and it would keep him busy. I said, rather heatedly, that I didn't care about any sports advantage. I also wanted him to have some free time, without his brother about, to figure out how to use his time himself. He could use some quiet time.

I asked Jonah what he wanted to do. Did he want to go to a soccer camp where he wouldn't know anyone and it would last all day? Or did he want to spend time at home? If he chose home, he couldn't play video games or watch TV until after 3:00. He would have to read and play by himself until noon, because I had to work. But I would do stuff with him after noon. He chose the camp. Frankly, he was terrified at the thought of bored.

I wasn't happy with this reasoning, but I sent in the registration slip any way. We've got August to work on him being bored. Being bored is essential to the creative process. You need to be quiet in order to see things.

So, yeah, there are a lot of problems with the lack of freedom we give our kids. But what am I willing to do about it? I'm willing to give him time freedom.

I'm not sure that I'm ready to give him space freedom. The mom on the next block over is drunk by 3:00, and I'm pretty sure that her kid is a psychopath. I don't want Jonah playing there. Local kids on bikes have been hit by cars. I'm not sure if I want him riding his bike too far. Childless people growl at ten year old boys walking too near their homes. I don't want Jonah to have to deal with the mean people.

So, Jonah has never ventured on his own 100 yards from our front porch. (Ian has never ventured 10 yards on his own. I have to shadow him at all time, because he could get picked on, but that's another story.) I think I'm with Russell and Chabon on this one. It can't be a good thing.

63 thoughts on “Adventures in the Woods

  1. I remember when I did have freedom to roam. Some of what we did was frankly dangerous (including accidentially burning a hay field that abutted several houses). The really dangerous stuff didn’t start until the first members of my peer group hit 16.

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  2. “I’m not sure that I’m ready to give him space freedom. The mom on the next block over is drunk by 3:00, and I’m pretty sure that her kid is a psychopath.”
    One of my country relatives recently learned that the father of the only other child in easy playdate range now has a serious drug habit. That neighbor boy is a piece of work, so country relative’s son has no nearby social opportunities. What a bummer. Fortunately, country relative has other options elsewhere.

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  3. I think there’s a connection between how much money people have and the “freedom” of their children. Our kids are needing to learn how to entertain themselves and have fun in our own backyard, because we don’t have the resources for camp this year. Maybe it’s a good result of a bad situation. They’re still little though, so still get a good deal of supervision – it’s just not structured time.

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  4. Great post, Laura. I’m going to have to update mine with a link to this one.
    Being bored is essential to the creative process. You need to be quiet in order to see things.
    Yes! We could get all Ray Bradbury here, and talk about Farhenheit 451, and the insistence that the world of children be filled with programed noise and distractions and games, else they might–heaven forbid!–start to read and think creatively and critically on their own.
    I’m willing to give him time freedom. I’m not sure that I’m ready to give him space freedom. The mom on the next block over is drunk by 3:00, and I’m pretty sure that her kid is a psychopath. I don’t want Jonah playing there. Local kids on bikes have been hit by cars. I’m not sure if I want him riding his bike too far. Childless people growl at ten year old boys walking too near their homes. I don’t want Jonah to have to deal with the mean people.
    The bikes and dangers of traffic I sympathize with (as probably came out in my comments to yesterday’s thread). We try to go biking together as a family, and familiarize the girls with the neighborhood, before letting them go free; and even there, we’re only talking about the older two, and we fortunately live in an area where a park and a Dollar Tree store and whatnot can be reached without crossing any major roads. There was some discussion in our house, when it turned out that our nine-year-old had swimming lessons scheduled at a differen time than her sisters, as to whether we should allow her to bike on her own to the pool, because that does involve crossing a moderately busy road. But she insisted she could do it, and after chaperoning her once, she’s been fine.
    As to the local budding-psychopath and meanies, I don’t know. Obviously, parents are the ones who know their kids and the situation around them best, and they have to judge these things. In my experience, though, kids can often handle encounters with bullies and grumps a lot better than we often give them credit for. (We did, after all, once upon a time.)

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  5. My two youngest are bored a lot this summer. They both have 3 weeks of 1/2 day camp, spread out in one week increments through out the summer. It leaves a lot of bored time. They get the Nintendo or computer for 30 minutes a day, and the tv for an hour. There are no neighbor kids. None. So we have to call people for playdates. I hate that. I try to make sure they both have at least one a week. We have a 40 year old pool and a trampoline, and a huge drive way to ride bikes. Still those things aren’t as much fun with only siblings doing them with you. I think if they were siblings of the same gender it would be easier. My two older girls played together much better.
    I really remember hours at neighbor’s houses, riding bikes in vacant lots, walking to the grocery store for candy, and building elaborate outside towns for Barbies or matchbox cars with neighbor kids. My kids have none of that.
    Last week my son sat in my driveway for a little over two hours because he could here the ice cream truck within a couple of blocks. He sat there with his dollars wadded up in his fist and waited and waited. The ice cream man never came down our street. He is seven. One neighbor told him this wasn’t safe, and gave him a popsicle and told him to go in the house. Two other neighbors commented to me a week later about how worried they were about Mason sitting at the end of our driveway.
    My older children and I all checked on him from time to time, asked him if wanted to come in, but he didn’t. I honestly saw no danger or harm in it and was irritated by the implication that I was a negligent parent because my child was unsupervised in MY driveway.

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  6. Now that I think of it, in Boy Scouts it was the dads who always seemed about to burn something down. There would always be one guy who hadn’t read the guide, wanted dinner now, and wasn’t afraid to use petroleum products in ways that would make a ten year old flinch.

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  7. I think there’s a connection between how much money people have and the “freedom” of their children.
    Very true, B mama. Matt made the point about economic class making a difference in a comment on my blog. Wealthier people, for any number of reasons (the peers they associate with, etc.), often seem to push for options, and take advantages of more options, for structuring their children’s lives than do those who, obviously, lack the time or resources to pursue such things.

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  8. Remember that nerd reality show, 1900 House? (wherein the modern family committed to living the life, complete with the material goods, of a turn-of-the-century family–though it’s possible I’m conflating the below story with one of the others, like Frontier House) Two of the children, girls of about 9 and 10 or so, were incredibly bored and whiny for the first few weeks. No tv, no computer, no mall, no playdates, nothing to DO.
    But after a while, when they realized that entertainment was not going to be provided, they figured out stuff to do. (The mother was busy doing the mountains of housework and cooking involved in running a proper Victorian household.) The girls made and dressed their own paper dolls. They wrote little playlets, which they performed for the family. Later, when they were back to “civilization,” they said they had had more fun playing their made-up games and activities than they did watching tv or playing games made for them.
    I think that entertaining oneself takes some cultivation and practice, which kids don’t always get if more “packaged” activities are pretty much always available.

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  9. Being bored is essential to the creative process
    Unfortunately, for some of us, it’s also an essential component leading to overeating, but I’m assume that’s not a problem for your son.

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  10. I think kids desperately need independence, that the world is not any more dangerous than it used to be, but that we feel a lot more threatened by the dangers. I had a lot of independence when I was growing up, and it was good for me, and I loved it. My kids also thrive on independence. They want to make their own decisions about buying cookies, or the route to take across the street. They’re dependable and resourceful. And yet, it’s too easy to imagine, vividly the moment when something goes awry and so you have a really hard time giving them the freedom. I try to push my boundaries.

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  11. I’ve been letting my kids walk the dog by themselves. We’ve been doing lots of playdates for my 10 year old. My 7 year old is still on the young side for playdates and also has a bit of trouble with social skills.
    Having been walking around the neighborhood with the dog, I’m learning where the kids are. There are a lot of them; they just stay in their backyards or houses! It’s crazy. I wish I knew what to do about it. I think I’m just scared about being some sort of pushy neighbor.

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  12. “There are a lot of them; they just stay in their backyards or houses!”
    Note how the physical layout of the American neighborhood encourages this. Overgeneralizing a bit, if you are middle class, the backyard is where the kids play. The front yard is supposed to be well-groomed and lacking in childish paraphernalia. If you have kid stuff in your front yard, you are probably a redneck or the equivalent thereof.
    We recently installed a tire swing in our front yard (there being no suitable trees in the backyard). Ever since, I’ve been somewhat apologetic about it when I talk to elderly neighbors. Obviously, there’s no written list of rules, but I know it’s pushing the boundaries of neighborliness. On the other hand, we have rediscovered our front yard, and I’m hoping that our six-year-old will be able to leverage the tire swing into more interactions with the neighbor kids.

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  13. In our neighborhood, you see a fair bit of playhouses and stuff like that in the front yard. Yards are small and many people turned the backyard into parking or the dinning room or something.

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  14. ” If you have kid stuff in your front yard, you are probably a redneck or the equivalent thereof.”
    Not true — no one would ever call me a redneck or an equivalent thereof, and we have play equipment in our front yard. I think geography matters — we have a lot of hilly yards, and kids play where it’s flat, back or front.

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  15. Amy P,
    Note how the physical layout of the American neighborhood encourages this. Overgeneralizing a bit, if you are middle class, the backyard is where the kids play. The front yard is supposed to be well-groomed and lacking in childish paraphernalia.
    Interesting–and I think for the most part accurate–comment. It really plays into the whole Front Porch thing I’ve become a part of. Many people, as individuals and as families, in particular middle and upper-class people, have mostly retreated inward, to spaces they can privately manage and play in and with as they wish, and abandoned the front yard or porch, where they can observe and iteract with–and be observed by and interacted with by–others who live around them. There may not be any one cause of this, but still the same tipping point comes into play: eventually, it’s just not good form to hang around on, play in, or make use of your front porch or yard, because no one else is doing it, and the only people around to interact with are ones you don’t want to deal with. It’s a loss, but not, for most of us, an irrational one–there’s no one else visible out in front of the houses in the cul-de-sac for your kids to play with, or to keep an eye on the kids as they play, and so why wouldn’t you choose to shoo them into the backyard?

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  16. I agree with Russell.
    Our house faces the school (which became really interesting in light of our residency dispute; one way schools traditionally investigate residency is to wait outside the child’s home and see if they emerge to go to school; my point was our principal watches me emerge from my house with my kids every morning; anyway, digression). We had a yard sale last weekend and put two chairs out under the tree to sit on. I’ve left them there and plan to spend more time there watching the world go by.

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  17. I think there is a middle ground there between the two extremes (unfettered freedom to roam the streets & woods vs. basement playrooms & fenced astroturf-like lawns with play structures).
    My kids play in our yard, in the creek between our yard and the neighboring farm, and in several backyards (& front yards!) in a two block area. They can go down along the edge of the field (when I know crops won’t be damaged and pesticides are not present) and hide and make forts in the shrubs behind 4-5 houses near us. I can’t always see them, but they are usually within earshot of me or another parent, or with a walkie-talkie.
    We live in a small town (on the edge of town), and the contrast between our neighborhood and several of my kids’ friends’ neighborhoods is marked – the richest kids live in isolated subdivisions with huge houses (sadly lacking sidewalks and porches) and lots of HOA rules. Even there, though, I’ve noticed that the kids manage to make little hide-outs by the drainage ponds, in the bushes between the monstrous 5 acre lawns, etc.

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  18. I personally think the back yard/front yard thing is related to the architecture and the age of the house. Live in the suburbs, in a house built since 1950? The kids are probably in the back yard. There’s no foot traffic to encounter on the sidewalk regardless, and the front yard is probably largely driveway anyway. Live in my neighborhood, where houses were built circa 1900? The front yard and front porch are just as likely as hang-out spots. The front yard has the sidewalk, which is key for bike riding, sidewalk chalking, and skates. Plus, that’s where you encounter your neighbors, especially the dog owners.
    I am more with ianqui than others when it comes to the free time thing. My kids are quite happy to stay home and fill their unstructured time. They play My Little Pony, read books, and build their own elaborate board games for hours and hours. They are impossible to put to bed on such days because they’ve gotten no exercise. And they get progressively fatter and fatter. We sign them up for camp to make sure they get enough physical activity.

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  19. Sometimes when I read the descriptions of where kids play today (in a two block radius!) I wonder if my mother wanted us to die. (I’m just kidding about that, though sometimes I do wonder if she was too unworried.) Grade school was about 1 mile from my house, though mostly on lower traffic roads. She walked me there on the first day of kindergarten and then I walked or road my bike about 90% of the time after that. Other kids did it too, and we sometimes went together, but not always. By 8 or 9 we regularly rode our bikes (mostly, but not completely, on back roads) to the swimming pool in the summer, about a mile away. By 10 or so in the summer we’d ride our bikes to the “down town” to ride along (and play by) the river that went through town. That was about 5 miles or more each way. This was all long before cell phones, and before anyone wore bike helmets. We’d spend hours walking in the desert with our b-b guns, with no way of contacting us at all. Kids really are able to do much, much more than most people now think, I think.
    On another topic, real front porches are great- there are some wonderful ones with porch swings in west Philly, and one of my favorite things when I house-sat for a professor one year was his front porch with wicker porch furniture where I could sit and have a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening and enjoy the neighborhood. Few places where I grew up had them, but I’ve come to love them.

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  20. Also, I did really like Chabon’s use of maps and adventure stories in his essay. But Richard Louv explored this idea a lot more thoroughly a few years ago, and brings up quite a few ideas that Chabon doesn’t.
    A really short, but wonderful read on a related topic is “Beyond Ecophobia” by David Sobel. The main idea in Sobel’s little book is in an old (well, 11 years old, which is like a hundred in internet years) article here: Beyond Ecophobia.

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  21. I live in a medium-sized city in the upper midwest and I think we may be less worried about safety than my friends on the coasts. Maybe we are naive? stupid? negligent?
    For example, My 9 year old is allowed complete freedom within a 2 mile radius of our house. We let her take off on her bike alone, as long as we know vaguely where she is going and who she is with.
    Granted, she’s usually biking to an organized activity (i.e. swim team at the pool down the road or a sailing club over at the lake.) but she will also take a book along, and bike over to the park and sit and read for a while, or she’ll meet a friend and they’ll play alone for a while before she returns home. I often have only a general idea of where she is.
    Kids (over the age of 9-10) still roam in packs in our neighborhood and they still start pick-up games of baseball/kickball/whatever-ball with no adults involved.
    Of course, our winter is 7 months long. So perhaps, only crazy people live here to start with!

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  22. Childless people growl at ten year old boys walking too near their homes.
    I’m interested in urban planning, and I liked your post until I hit the above comment. I don’t have kids. That fact doesn’t make me an unreasonable demon. If I were ever to invite a wayward child to leave my lawn, it would be for fear that they would hurt themselves and their parents would sue.

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  23. Grade school was about 1 mile from my house, though mostly on lower traffic roads. She walked me there on the first day of kindergarten and then I walked or road my bike about 90% of the time after that…. Kids really are able to do much, much more than most people now think, I think.
    Matt, I relate to this memory of yours is every way. In first and second grade, my older sister, older brother, and I would walk to our elementary school about a half-mile away, mostly but not always together, through some undeveloped woods, along a country road, sometimes taking a shortcut through a rain tunnel. By third grade, going to a different school, there were dozens of kids biking more or less along the same path, from our suburban development to the school up on top of a hill, 2 miles away or so. By fifth grade, I told my parents I was going to ride by bike to school alone–about four miles away, maybe more. Once they were sure they knew where I was going, it was fine with them. And so on and so forth. I really wonder if the conceptual gap between what parents in the 50s, 60s, and 70s thought, and parents who have been pummeled for the past 30 years with warnings about child abductions and flash floods and all think today, is almost too large to get a grasp on. Parents just didn’t worrry about us kids as much back, or at least not at all in the same way that we are warned to be worried today.
    On another topic, real front porches are great….Few places where I grew up had them, but I’ve come to love them.
    Yeah, the front porch ideal is awesome. I’ve only lived on place in my life where I saw a lot of them in use–a little tucked away neighborhood, right over the Potomac in Arlington, outside of Crystal City, where for some bizarre twist of zoning, no development had taken place for 40 years or more. We lived in an apartment, but we would take walks through that neighborhood, pushing our oldest (then only) daughter around in a stroller, and the people watching was great fun.

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  24. …it would be for fear that they would hurt themselves and their parents would sue.
    And tragically, it’s not an unreasonable fear. Our society’s often maddening, sometimes pathetic reliance on the courts, and the resulting (perhaps justifiable, but I think also often overreactive) fear of lawsuits, is another whole angle to this transformation that is worth keeping in mind.

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  25. I understand the fear of lawsuits. I used to be described as an attractive nuisance until I got older and just became a nuisance.

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  26. I have a Hints from Heloise book from around 1960, and one of the awesome tips sent in by readers is for what to do about her five-year-old, who gets busy playing and forgets to come home for supper. What does the mother do? Ties an alarm clock around his bike handlebars.
    It’s sort of inconceivable how much attitudes have changed. I remember when I first had a baby (in 2003) how every device–swings, high chairs, everything–included an instruction that you were NEVER to leave a baby unattended in it. In my post-partum fog it took me quite a while to figure out how I could take a shower with no other adults home, and things like how to return a shopping cart after putting the baby and groceries in the car, were still flummoxing, knowing that people have been brought up on charges for leaving a small child in the car while running ito a store to pick up dry cleaning.
    The right answer to the cart dilemma is to lug the baby back with the cart, and then haul the baby bucket all the way back to the car, which is pretty tiring once the baby gets to a certain size.

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  27. I know that was all about babies, but still, the idea that your kids should never be out of your direct line of sight doesn’t end there–after that it’s how far back you’re allowed to hang while your 3-year-old climbs the park equipment. Lots of parents are still climbing alongside at that age.
    We actually live on a block with, now, seven other kids so people hang out in front yards and visit back and forth. It’s nice. I still supervise though, more because I think my neighbors are too nice to tell the six-year-old to scat when they’ve had enough of her.

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  28. I live in an older suburb – close to a downtown, sidewalks, and a porch. There isn’t, however, woods to roam around in. Like Chabon, I grew up near smallish woods and loved it. I was able to hide away from adults and make things up. Maybe that’s why I’ve been hankering to move to upstate NY. I want my kids, well one of my kids, to have time to roam about the woods.
    The childless people on my block yell at the kids not only for going on their property. But for playing on the street — a ball might hit a car — and for making too much noise. Kids have always annoyed people, but in the past, people accepted them. They might yell at them to shut up and get off their lawn, but it was accepted that kids were out there. Now, it’s such a rarity to see kids outside, so people are doubly annoyed at having too deal with the little buggers. At least that’s the attitude around here. I’m sure you aren’t that way, KT.
    And not seeing kids has larger, political implications. If you don’t see them, you don’t understand that there are schools and daycare that need funding. All people see is there taxes going up and going to some unknown place and it pisses them off.

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  29. “…who gets busy playing and forgets to come home for supper.”
    My town blew the fire whistle every noon and every evening at 6:00. They said it was to test the whistle, but that wasn’t how it was used. Excepting meal times, when the whistle would sound, the volunteer firemen (and everybody else) would turn on the radio to see where the fire was. This was followed by a sung reminder (sponsored by a local insurance agent) not to go gawking at the fire (“We’d like to help by avoiding the scene.”)

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  30. I never did walk to school, but only because my dad’s office was a block away. The school was 9 blocks or so from home. I was supposed to walk home, but I got offered rides from passing neighbors fairly frequently. I’m sure the rides were dangerous by today’s standards. Our next door neighbor used to let his youngest son sit on his lap and steer. And there would be like 6 kids and an adult in a pick-up (complete with anti-Jimmy Carter bumper sticker).

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  31. Kids have always annoyed people, but in the past, people accepted them. They might yell at them to shut up and get off their lawn, but it was accepted that kids were out there. Now, it’s such a rarity to see kids outside, so people are doubly annoyed at having too deal with the little buggers.
    I’ll admit to having told some kids to be quite recently, but it was because they were playing inside, in my stair-well, and I wanted them to go outside- it was a nice day, and in my neighborhood (in Harlem) kids do play outside all the time by themselves- sometimes in the parks, sometimes right on the side walk, but a lot outside and by themselves. (In my case it was in the evening, sound isn’t blocked by the doors of our apartments at all, and I’m pretty sure the kids didn’t live in the building. And, I did ask them nicely.)
    I do remember playing baseball on some neighbor’s cul-de-sac when I was a kid, and think it was probably just luck that we never broke anyone’s window or dented a car.
    But even when I was a kid there was a “mean old woman” who would, for example, yell at us and threaten to call the police if we played by the local irrigation canal, and my parents just told us to ignore her and not worry about it, and say that they said it was okay for us to play there. That might be good advice now, too.

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  32. There’s an interesting disconnect between Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Chabon.
    Gladwell (and Nicholas Kristof, incidentally) notes that summers off lower the academic acumen of poorer children, whose parents to not have the cash to send them to enriching camps or the time/inclination to read to and spend time with their children in a meaningful way. Gladwell’s message is that kids with actively involved parents deal assertively with authority, are confident, and more academically successful.
    Chabon nostalgically recalls days of freedom to imagine and roam, fretting that the loss of child-space will diminish creativity, artistic thinking, problem solving and confidence. Others, worried about helicopter parenting and supporting the free-range kid concept think the children of the upper middle class have lost some of the cherished moments they enjoyed most in their childhoods.
    The picture of the upper-middle class child is simultaneously confident and insecure, constrained and unrestrained, her prospects limited and expanded by both parental philosophies. One wonders if these two thinkers are actually correct or if these outcomes are mutually exclusive, or if the plight of the American middle-class adolescent isn’t nearly as urgent as it appears to be.

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  33. Great comment, Julie. The way to connect Gladwell and Chabon is Annette Lareau, a sociologist that Harry B first told me about. I’ve got her book and I’ll lend it to you. Best parenting book around.
    She studied the habits of lower and middle income kids and found that lower income kids had a lot more unstructured free time, while the higher income kids had more structured time — soccer and all that. She found that the lower income kids had more trouble communicating w/adults and mediating bureaucracy than the middle income kids. All that structured time did develop a lot of skills. Soccer camp is about more than kicking a soccer ball. But she also found that the lower income kids were happier and had better ties with their extended family.
    The trick for us enlightened parents is to find a middle ground between the two models.

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  34. I had a lot of space and time freedom as a kid. Lots. For the most part it was awesome.
    My kids are still fairly young (7, 5, 1). The older two get about 2 hours of screen time a week, so there’s lots of time freedom. And usually, they’re not too bored.
    We’ve just started exploring the space freedom with my oldest. Because we live in a small, enclosed neighborhood, she is allowed to ride her bike to her friends’ houses. And she and my 5-year old will be walking home together from the bus stop, which is at the front of our subdivision. I probably grant more freedom then most parents. But it’s a tough line to define. And very much dependent on our particular neighborhood/kids/friends.

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  35. I have to admit that I am not full of nostalgia for the freedom of the 70s, most of the time.
    While I do think that some of the freedom (and responsibility, to get to school on time 1.5 miles away, for example) was good and all, I also remember how it was to be prevented from getting off public transit by the Mean Girls from the local high school; to nearly lose toes after getting wet boots in a Canadian snowstorm; to be flashed in the ravine, and later find a dead newborn there.
    My mother was a SAHM but it would not have occurred to her to disturb her routine to pick me up from school from time to time or to ask me if I was afraid on my way home (sometimes) or lonely (sometimes).
    This was not out of a desire to give me time to be creative but because there were cocktail parties to give and attend along with consciousness-raising groups that were soon to result in waves of divorce amongst my peers… some of whom become the “latchkey kids” and at least one of whom spent the time from 3:30 – 6 under her bed (not me).
    In other words really, I don’t think Gen X parents are afraid of molesters all the time (although some of us were indeed molested, although mostly not by strangers). I think some of us have gone the other way because the freedom was not a creative well (that would have been reading, and camping) but rather what provided us with our permanent outsider view, on the outside looking in at the party. For better or for worse.
    In other words, I think that it is important to think about what we are giving up, for sure. But it was not necessarily a utopian ideal to which we should all aspire, the 70s.

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  36. OT, but MH, any black people in the town you grew up in? Not that anyone would have told the kids, but a 6pm whistle sounds a lot like the kind of signal a sundown town would have used.

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  37. Kai and Shandra, you’re both right to highlight the other side to all this handwringing (which I’m sure Tim Burke would do as well). Depending on how we all were raised (urban or suburban or rural, lower or middle or upper class, with hippy or workaholic parents), no doubt a lot of us found the unstructuredness of some aspects of our growing up years alienating or downright scary. I’m not sure Chabon would be troubled by that–he seems to allow that negotiating loneliness, violence, perhaps even abuse is or ought to be part of navigating childhood’s “map”–but you’d have to be a completely unthinking parent not to want to learn from and correct some elements of a bad childhood. Ultimately, as Morninglight Mama says in a comment on my blog, it always comes down to balance.

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  38. We visited my parents last week. Spent several days there, and at one point my 9 year old started to get bored.
    I realized that at 9 years old, living in that same house in that same neighborhood, which has not changed and has certainly not seen a giant crime increase — by 9 years old all the kids in the neighborhood were going on their own down to the corner store 5 blocks away, were going down to the playgrounds and the ballfields, and were allowed free rein of the entire block “until the streetlights come on.” Which, in Michigan, turns out to be about 9:00pm.
    I struggle with this, because I see the good it does my child to be given room to roam. Until last year he had a good buddy in the neighborhood, two streets over. I could see their back deck in the winter when the trees were leafless, but he had to cut through three yards and cross a street to get there. And doing that at age 6 and 7 was HUGE to him. Each bit of that kind of independence seems to help him find his center. I can see him maturing and gaining self-control in his home relationships when he gets some measure of power granted to him in these things. I’m a big fan of “No child left inside,” as well, and I see again and again how leaving kids to their own devices in a green setting makes a huge difference for the better in their behavior.
    He has friends who live closer to us than that corner store I used to go to nearly every day in the summer at his age – and I’m hesitating to let him ride his bike alone. Not because I don’t think he can handle it, but because Nobody Else Is Doing It. There are fascinating woods across the street from us, and I’m wondering at what age I’ll let him go play in them. Except for the problem of who he’ll play with, because I suspect his friend’s parents Would Not Approve.
    Shit, he and his friends will be *driving* in 7 years. Able to be in control of a 2-ton vehicle and take it anyplace in town — and we’re all fussing about letting them walk a quarter-mile on their own. My philosophy is to start releasing the reins slowly now – but if no one else feels that way, he’s gonna be pretty lonely, and probably less safe than I was in my little pack at that age.

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  39. yes, balance is a good thing, but Shandra brings up excellent points. Some of things that Shandra experienced, I wouldn’t want my kid to deal with even a little bit.
    We all have to maintain a certain amount of suspicion when we read critiques of modern parenting, because there is often an anti-parent (well, anti-woman) bias. For example, I refuse to read any article that discusses “helicopter parenting,” because it usually includes some two-dimensional, screeching soccer mom nastiness.

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  40. ” And doing that at age 6 and 7 was HUGE to him. Each bit of that kind of independence seems to help him find his center. I can see him maturing and gaining self-control in his home relationships when he gets some measure of power granted to him in these things.”
    My kids are like this, too. The thrive on the independence, and don’t see it as neglect. I think that’s part of the subtext of Shandra’s comment. I think it’s partially based on how people actually behave. The fact that some of us agonize about pushing ourselves to give our children this freedom shows, in itself, that it’s not neglect. Others really may be trying to “get rid of their children.” But, I also think it depends on the children (and parent’s) personalities. There are children who crave independence and those who crave comforting. Part of parenting is trying to figure out which kind of child is yours (and not letting what kind of child you were interfere too much in that evaluation).
    I think my children do crave independence, but perhaps not quite as much as I did; some of my independence was benign neglect, and my mother occasionally worries about whether there was too much neglect. But, for me, there certainly wasn’t. I needed the independence, would have felt smothered by more parental attention and involvement. One of my sisters, on the other hand, might have been happier with more attention. Our attitude to our children is clearly colored by what we needed as children (even if we’re also right that mine need independence and that hers need more support).

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  41. OK, real life incident from yesterday. My 8 yo had a playdate, with another 8 yo. They’re generally responsible, well-behaved girls. They decided to play in the walkout basement, playing both inside and outside. Into the late afternoon, I started to notice that things were quiet, and realized that they’d decided to let themselves into our garage/shed, and then decided to play with a child’s electric car that we store there. They took it out to the alley to play. I noticed them at this point (when they’d just taken the car out). The alley is fairly safe — no cars drove through in the our that we were there, and families using the alley generally look out for kids. But, I felt uncomfortable having them play in the alley without eye balls on them, and so produced a few pairs of eye balls when I realized that’s where they wanted to play.
    There’s no question at all that I would have been allowed to play in a similar situation by myself when I was eight. There’s some danger — from potential traffic, and the kids not paying attention to it. At some age, they *should* be able to navigate the dangers; I suspect that it should be now, at 8. But, it’s really hard to know when, and as long as you don’t give them the responsibility, they really won’t learn. It’s not a matter of simply waiting for them to be old enough; they also need the responsibility.
    That’s what I worry about. I do not believe that everything can be learned in a safe practice environment.

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  42. “Some of things that Shandra experienced, I wouldn’t want my kid to deal with even a little bit. ”
    I see the emotional impact. But, I think protecting from all of that, even the really ugly has a significant cost for their development. I make my judgments on the fly, and weight physical damage far more than emotional damage when I’m making my decisions (perhaps unfairly, ’cause I am not easy to damage emotionally, but don’t know yet about my children). I think the risk-averse behavior that imagines the worst thing that can happen, and then arranges life to minimize that risk has huge huge costs on development. Frankly, I actually worry that it will significant alter human behavior/human society.
    For example, I don’t plan to go out of my way to prevent my children from having to deal with mean people who growl at them and make them feel bad.
    bj

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  43. Doug, this was extreme rural Nebraska. According to Wikipedia, the town in now 98.5% white, which seems higher than when I was there.

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  44. I think protecting from all of that, even the really ugly has a significant cost for their development.
    I see where you’re coming from on this one, bj, but I have to say that, since you say yourself that you’re not easy to damage emotionally, it might be that you’re discounting the devastating impact the really ugly can have on a kid’s development. As someone who’s been there and done that, I gotta say that childhood trauma really *doesn’t* do anything to promote healthy adult functioning.
    In general, I suspect that most of us here are responding to what we are seeing in our own kids and our own local conditions when we allow freedoms and set limits. My own kids are so risk-averse that I (quietly) cheer when they start asking for more freedoms. My oldest wants to start walking home from school alone — okay, fine, there are sidewalks and the distance from there to here is teeming with other people who know him from school and would be keeping an eye on him. But I wouldn’t generalize from that to “all kids should have more freedoms.” The things that work for my kids in my neighborhood aren’t necessarily going to translate to people in different circumstances.

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  45. The fact that some of us agonize about pushing ourselves to give our children this freedom shows, in itself, that it’s not neglect. Others really may be trying to “get rid of their children.” But, I also think it depends on the children (and parent’s) personalities. There are children who crave independence and those who crave comforting. Part of parenting is trying to figure out which kind of child is yours (and not letting what kind of child you were interfere too much in that evaluation).
    BJ, this is really excellently said; thank you for formulating it this way. When you step back, this whole thread–with all its anecdotes, good and bad, about how we were raised and what we experienced and what we’re allowing our kids to do today at which age and why–is part of the ongoing “balance” we should all be searching for: thinking about why we make the decisions we do, and why we might change them, if someone new moves into the neighborhood or our child grows a little older or has a bad encounter with a local bully, or if we’re not talking about our oldest but rather then middle-child, etc., etc. I’m really getting a lot out of this; it’s great to be able to follow and participate in a discussion that mixes actual experiences with some real thought about the values behind our judgments.

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  46. It’s funny. I don’t worry about child molesters. I worry about cars. I am petrified of cars hitting my kids. My parents’ street, where I used to play kickball all the time, is now overrun by cars, mostly driven by people talking or texting on cell phones.

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  47. I’m also hugely worried about cars. Most of my neighbors without children are well into the “This isn’t the way to the Country Kitchen” years.

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  48. Right now my 17 year-old daughter and two of her friends are in a city five hours from here, alone. They’re on a road trip. The first for my daughter without adults. They drove down yesterday, go to an amusement park today and come home tomorrow. Two nights in a hotel.
    My child so far has proven very trustworthy in a variety of circumstances, but it was hard for me to do this. I have one set of friends who raise their eyebrows, and others who kind of feel the way I do. She’ll be 18 in 4 months. A year from now she will be at college across the country.
    How will she be prepared for that freedom if I don’t give her some tastes of it along the way?
    It’s weird to feel the judgment of those who think I’m doing the wrong thing. My natural instincts are to give my children lots of freedom, and when I pull back on that, it’s usually because of the judgment of others or all the ridiculous fear of the boogeyman that is drilled into us now by the media.
    I’m not worried about molesters out in the world, experience has shown I need to be more concerned about those we know.

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  49. I dunno, Amy, googling “sundown towns”+Nebraska is instructive. It’s a pity the book of the same title is so badly written; the hidden history (or at least, it was hidden to me) is fascinating.
    But off-topic, as I said, so I’ll just leave it at that.

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  50. It’s funny. I don’t worry about child molesters. I worry about cars. I am petrified of cars hitting my kids. My parents’ street, where I used to play kickball all the time, is now overrun by cars, mostly driven by people talking or texting on cell phones.
    Wendy, MH: so true. Though I think a lot of how dangerous the roads are to our kids is a function of 1) Laura’s related point above, that people increasing live in environments where they don’t have to deal with children playing in the street or riding their bikes, with the result that more and more they just aren’t looking for them, and 2) astonishingly bad zoning and neighborhood traffic policies that have been in place for years now, which just furthers us over our various tipping points: when fewer people feel comfortable letting their kids walk/bike to school or to the grocery store, more people drive them, which makes the roads even less safe, etc., etc.

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  51. We just discussed the alley this morning along these same grounds (i.e. people not looking for children). Conclusion: the kids need instruction about alley behavior, and supervision while we see that they can follow the instructions. The eight year olds are probably trustworthy. The 5-year-old too distractible. After supervision, we’ll let them play, perhaps with an adult in calling distance, though not necessarily in visual distance.
    (and, a part of the decision making process is that people really do look for kids in this alley way, and will be more likely to do so if they see them more frequently).
    It occurred to me that one of the important parts of an alley, as opposed to a yard, is the respect of private property. The alley is a public space, so a new kid can join in without permission, at least in using the space, increasing the possibility that play will occur together. A yard doesn’t offer that opportunity. Playgrounds do, but if they’re too far away, you can’t come to them without planning, the way you can with an alley.

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  52. But, I also think it depends on the children (and parent’s) personalities. There are children who crave independence and those who crave comforting. Part of parenting is trying to figure out which kind of child is yours (and not letting what kind of child you were interfere too much in that evaluation).
    This is really, really good point (as Russell Arben Fox already pointed out). I’ve got one child with some issues with impulse control and Tourette’s syndrome, and it is very frustrating to be second-guessed by family members who don’t understand the level of supervision that he used to need.
    Lisa, as a parent (*especially* a mother), you’re going to be judged no matter what you do. I’m not sure why this aspect of our lives is so intensely contended (and is this a new thing?), but intolerance and knee-jerk judgment about parenting is huge, on the internets and in real life.
    Also, Anxious Parents, by Peter Stearns, is a really interesting (if sometimes a bit prolix) look at parenting in the 20th c., if only to see all of the stuff that parents used to worry about that most of us don’t think about much today – the evils of radio shows, comic books, superheroes, and homosexuality.

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  53. I assume you are talking about http://sundown.afro.illinois.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?state=NE
    Most of the towns listed did not have any information in the listing. It looked to me that those that did have information were the bigger towns (Lincoln) and those nearer the bigger towns. The exception appears to be Wynot, which has a very unfortunate story in its listing. Back home, people did always tell stories about really insular and unfriendly little towns up that way. Those towns with populations that would fit on a single jet can and do go off in a bad way. They are basically a half-dozen interrelated families.

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  54. I think it was the author of Reviving Ophelia who once said that previous generations raised children to become part of society, while today’s parents protect their children from society.
    This seems to be the sort of friction that flummoxes Lisa V (and many others). On the one hand, the way we (and Michael Chabon) were raised was in a condition of “neglect”(benign or otherwise) where childhood traumas were more likely (it seems) to be attributed to bad luck, foolish decisions by the child, and irresponsible (or criminal) behavior by others.
    Today, parents are more likely (again, it seems) to be blamed for permitting circumstances of risk to occur at all.
    The goals of parenting seem quite disparate. Hence our (cautious) nostalgia for the 1970’s, a time without car seats, where smoking and drinking were recommended for pregnant mothers, and the stick ball games were easy pasttimes. I don’t want to go back the the 1970’s. But I’m nervous about being judged by others for the “risks” I permit my child to undertake and for having a life that is not devoted to her protection (I might be overstating this last point).

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  55. From what MH says, it seems like his town would have needed to bus in minorities from several counties away in order to kick them out at sundown.
    That said, I’ve been rather surprised to learn odds and ends about the history of the Klan in the North. I didn’t realize that the Klan was a very big deal in Indiana at some point. There’s a book that I’d like to read called Notre Dame Vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. I know the Klan also flourished in Oregon in the 1920s, which is really the last place you’d expect to find it, but apparently the Klan of the 1920s was quite a bit different than Klan Classic. Interestingly, in places like Washington state at the beginning of the 20th century, it was actually the politically progressive who were among the most passionately opposed to Chinese laborers. (I don’t have a cite handy, but this last point came up when my dad was working on a book about pioneer women of Washington state.)

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  56. I have older relatives who complained about the Klan being actively opposed to the Catholics (largely the Irish at the time). I’m sure they (the Klansters) weren’t happy with non-whites or non-Christians, but those were rare and the Irish were pouring in by the thousands. This was never a problem for my family as the Catholics quickly became numerically dominant in their area.
    By the time my dad was around, the Klan was gone (as a political force) and people were worried about all of those unassimilated Germans and why they couldn’t speak English when so many of the local boys were fighting Hilter.

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  57. I think it was the author of Reviving Ophelia who once said that previous generations raised children to become part of society, while today’s parents protect their children from society….[T]he way we (and Michael Chabon) were raised was in a condition of “neglect”(benign or otherwise) where childhood traumas were more likely (it seems) to be attributed to bad luck, foolish decisions by the child, and irresponsible (or criminal) behavior by others. Today, parents are more likely (again, it seems) to be blamed for permitting circumstances of risk to occur at all.
    Another great summarizing comment; thanks for making it, Julie. I’m generally reluctant to allow quantifications of “risk” to come up in discussions I think are important, because I think such language can so easily be derailed by economistic/utilitarian thinkers, and suddenly the moral/pratical dimensions of the conversation get reduced to the percentage chance of your kid being hit by a train vs. their percentage chance of growing up psychologically stunted because you didn’t allow them X amount of space freedom, etc., etc. But, that being said, I suppose you can’t entirely avoid thinking about this stuff in terms of “risk.” The contemporary world–for numerous reasons, legal and otherwise–is constantly calling our attention to “risks,” with the implication that we need to reduce them, and if we don’t then we’re personally or collectively at fault if anybody gets hurt. But in eras of less pervasive legal and/or social “technologies” and bureaucracies to track and attribute blame for these things, people were perhaps more willing to allow that risks are a part of life. That’s not an apology for neglect by any means; just an observation that how we frame the problem makes a big difference in what we see as a problem in the first place.

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  58. Julie G.- On being judged. I’ve been judged for working and for not working. I’ve been judged for dressing too girlie and for not dressing girlie enough. I’ve been judged for how much money husband makes and, in the past, for how little he made. I’ve been judged for the camps my kids go to, the handbag I carry, the length of my hair, the age of my car, the books on my shelves. Whatever.
    Thick skin, girlfriend. Thick skin.

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  59. I’ve been blogging free-range kids for quite some time.
    http://badmomgoodmom.blogspot.com/search/label/Free%20Range%20Kids
    I agree with Chabon about the importance of mapping uncharted territory in childhood. However, who lives near open fields and empty lots any more? Certainly not someone who worries about global warming and the earth’s carbon budget. 😉
    Despite the lack of open space, I am pretty sure my kid leads a rich interior life. Her conversation reveals quite an imagination and an ability to connect experiences and things from many sources.
    BTW, I do let my 8 yo walk alone to school (3 blocks) and a playmate’s house (1 block). I do watch from the driveway while she crosses the street where the neighborhood drug dealer lives. It isn’t because I think he will snatch her, or that she will wander in there to buy methamphetamines–it’s because people leaving after their purchase peal out of there, oblivious to pedestrians and right of way at the 4-way stop sign.
    http://badmomgoodmom.blogspot.com/2009/07/free-range-cats.html

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  60. Oddly enough I’d forgotten until this morning about a time when I was, as a kid, literally lost in the woods. My family went on a backpacking trip in the mountains in Idaho with a group from our church. All together maybe 20-25 people were going. We drove to a trail-head pretty far up in the mountains and were to hike about 6 miles into a wilderness area. My family got their first, and with us was a neighbor kid who had gone to the same lake a year before. I’d been backpacking 2 times already but neither I nor my father had been to this place. I was fairly experienced in camping even though I was only barely 11 years old. The neighbor kid (who was, I think, about 14) asked if he and I could start early so that we could get a good camp site and said he knew the way, and my father said yes. But, we took a wrong turn (when almost to the right place) and went about 8 more miles (with fairly heavy packs) the wrong way. Eventually, when it was quite dark (and lightly raining) we decided to try to walk back to where the trail split. People had been looking for us until it got dark but then went back to camp. We slept on the trail that night in one sleeping bag (we’d left some stuff behind to hike more quickly) and got up and walked back the rest of the way to the right camp that morning. (People hadn’t started searching yet.) It was kind of scary, but We were never really scared, and though my mother was worried my father wasn’t that worried because he knew we had good equipment, water, food, matches, and experience in the woods. Obviously it could have ended badly, and it probably wasn’t the best idea to let us walk by ourselves, but in truth I’m happy to have had the experience, as it was good to know that I could keep cool and deal with such things.

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