Childhood without a Harness


Just a few days back, I arrived home to find a mound of muddy clothes at my front entrance and the sounds of children scampering from bath to bedroom (all of which meant, of course, mud downstairs, water upstairs, cleaning to do everywhere.)

They had just returned from the weekly “Nature Club” outing organized by my very brave wife, with something close to forty children (most under the age of nine) set free in the woods. The notion, borrowed from that great English pedagogue, Charlotte Mason, is parenting by “masterly inactivity,” that is, completely in charge but allowing children to explore the world without leashes or safety nets.

Forts are made, tiger traps dug, sketches drawn, sticks and stones collected (many now in my front room), bands of merry adventurers taking care of those small or young, a fire made and meal cooked, with a minimum of direct parental involvement or control—masterly inactivity.

My little ones return exhilarated; the oldest concluded her report of one of these days with the statement, “this was the best day of my entire life.”

All this, of course, because it seems an adventure; it seems an adventure because they sense the presence of risk; risk requires courage, which ennobles. (For the faint of heart out there, nothing reckless is allowed, parents are still masterly, and etc.)

Yet, the tone of contemporary parenting, at least anecdotally, is thoroughly risk adverse. Helicopter parents hovering about, even for their college-aged children, overly planned schedules, endless self-improvement regimens, safety helmet, safety harness, safety whistle. Despite our progress and our wealth and leisure, we seem more rather than less anxious about our children, and it’s not at all clear the children are happy about it, or their parents.

I’ll admit to having moments when I wish my children would sit primly, but mostly I want them as they are—a boy with dirty fingernails (from catching some woodland creature) plays his violin, a girl in ballet outfit proudly shows some new battle scratch, another daughter with dirty face from rolling down a hill boldly (and loudly) recites the Our Father.

Spirit. I want to see, and hear, and feel, spirit in my children. Courage to stare down the real devils of life, and boldness to resist easy satisfaction—that comes from shouting insults and charging fake enemies with a stick-sword. Boldness to marry, and to stay married, to rear their own children in hope, that comes from striking out on adventures, even when somewhat frightening, but not turning back in indulgence.

So, while most days are spent at maths and literature, history and Latin, some time must be given over to courage, and that means dirt, and noise, and adventures more imagined than real, but no less adventurous for that, and it means some risk. Scratches and ticks, bumps and chiggers, muscle aches and leeches, for all that we’re grateful.

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