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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R. J. Snell
R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. You can’t learn much when your every act is prescribed and circumscribed. We learn so much from trial and error and from outright failure; kids need the freedom to try things out and see what happens. Of course, the challenge then is to set limits within which they have that freedom, but don’t, say, drown in the well or burn down the house. And then gradually expand those limits as they get older. I love that phrase “masterly inactivity.”

    Earlier this morning my daughter appeared wearing a bandana on her head, and I asked if there were any particular reason why, since she doesn’t normally wear a bandana. She and her friends, she explained, had formed an “adventure mystery club,” and the members all wore bandanas. “Oh,” I said, “so when you are out having adventures you don’t get your hair too messy.” She nodded as if this might be true (it’s hard to tell sometimes whether she is agreeing with me or merely humoring me). So, there you go… adventure within reasonable limits, albeit limits I wouldn’t have bothered to set. Now if only she’ll be that careful about not messing up my car in eight years, we’ll be set.

    (I admit it’s more likely the bandana idea came from the cover of a book, but my interpretation makes a better story, so I’m going with it. Writer’s prerogative.)

  2. Although your children had to have the experiences which you outline in a nature club, I am heartened by the fact that there are parents who understand that they need those experiences and that you provided them with the opportunity to have those experiences.

    My nature club, in an era gone with the wind, was nature herself. Mama would say, as I disappeared out the door, “Be careful and don’t do anything foolish!” We were usually somewhat careful and usually not too foolish.” I do not believe that we understood what we were doing as play. It was simply what boys did. Before on a given day we did what boys wanted to do, we had to do what our parents wanted us to do. For me, it was to mow nearly five acres; to feed dogs, cats and chickens; and to work in the garden. Those were the daily tasks. Some days, it was to pull the well to replace a foot valve, to clean the grease trap, to work on the field line, or to get a dead armadillo from under the house. (Only one girl was ever involved; when at a particular friends house where we would have green pecan fights – pecans thrown or shot with a slingshot – she was labeled the “Cedar Witch” and was assigned to fight on my side.) We fought wasps, our favorite summer pastime; we road trees; we rolled down hills in tires; we went watermelon riding in the swimming hole; we built forts; we sank the Bismark hundreds of times in the form of beer cans in the creek; we did scientific research, throwing armadillos into the creek to see if it was true that they could walk on the bottom; we fished for crawfish; we fished for “real” fish; we found sturdy muscadine vines and attempted to pay Tarzan; and, among many more things, we went to war as Germans and Americans, as British and Americans and as cowboys and Indians. As boys, we never “reenacted” the War Between the States because absolutely no one would be a Yankee soldier – Germans, yes; English, yes; Indians, yes (Most of us had Indian blood and were proud of it.); but Yankees, never.

    I am exasperated at the risk adversity of the anti-culture of Modernity/Post-Modernity. Death and injury are no longer seen as part of the created order. The transcendent hope which a deep Christianity offers is gone even among those of us who claim to be Christian. Obviously, we are not to be utterly careless with the life which God in His grace has given us; yet, to begin to live the life which G.K. Chesterton captures in the following quote from his “Ballad of the White Horse”, one must begin to live it as a child; otherwise, it will never be lived:

    “But the men signed of the cross of Christ Go gaily in the dark.”

    Gaining the faith and courage to so live must begin in childhood. Sometimes, one gets do-popped by a wasp; one breaks one’s arm when slung by a tree; one breaks one’s neck jumping thoughtlessly into an early summer swimming hole; or one drowns on a duck hunt: injuries small and injuries deadly. (All of these and more took place in the commonwealth of my boyhood.) Yet, most of us survived and are the better for it. Those of my generation and of and from my little commonwealth are in the autumn of life; if we could, we would do all of those things yet again: fight wasps one more time; ride a tire down a hill one more time; ride a pine sapling one more time; ride a watermelon one more time. At the end of the day, on instinct, we would sniff the air and stretch our ears. Although supper and mama were often a mile or so away, we smelled the vesper meal and heard mama’s voice, scattering like a covey of quail to our respective homes, there to hear mother say, “Boy, what have you been up to?” Answering, “Nothing much.” She rarely asked for any details, needing a certain deniability for what she knew it her heart. Papa would pray and perhaps say something like, “Boy, that sure does look like tire rubber marks on the back of your shirt.” That was his signal that he knew what we’d been up to. Supper was good.

  3. Great post. Richard Louv writes very well about the need for unrestricted, uncontrolled time outdoors. The irony here is that a kid that takes risks, finds their own limits, explores, experiments and plays hard is going to learn a whole lot about how to keep themselves safe.

    Although I’m still a big advocate for helmets in many circumstances.

  4. “boldness to shout insults….” my son and i have run in some very sanitized circles of late. i was therefore strangely gladdened when i overheard a little boy playfully shout “you ballsack!” at the park the other day. i told my wife and she wasn’t pleased.

  5. My uncle and are were just talking about how he was able to explore as a youth in the 50’s when he visited his grandparents small town. A day’s agenda may include laying down fishing lines and going back to check them.

  6. For this, we need some unfettered countryside: a lot not cleared, a field not mowed, a brook not fenced off, shoreline accessible. Also, we need to explain to kids clearly some simple safety rules, whether it’s no three leaves or no candy from strangers, and then make sure the most responsible member of the group (if there are no adults) has a simple cell phone, with your number and 911 speed-dialled into it. Go on hikes with them once in a while, get them some nature guides, set some simple rules, and then- let them be!

  7. Where I live now, every single wooded area is fenced off. I mentioned to my wife (a native) how crazy such a state of affairs is, and her response was “Why wouldn’t they be (fenced off)?” Rarely have I been more disheartened. Yes, bring on the ticks, and the poison ivy, and the snakes, and even the spiders (my nemesis).

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