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As I sit typing this, I am on Lookout Mountain, in Tennessee. We’re visiting my husband’s family and we’re staying in his grandmother’s cottage which is in a very rural area. There are no other houses to speak of and no traffic going by. None. There is also no Wifi and no television. What there is plenty of: trees, grass, farm animals and insects. There are rocks to turn over, crayfish to catch and fairy houses to be made of stones and mud-mortar.

At home in Boulder, Colorado, we are right in the middle of the suburbs. We have a good sized backyard for being in town and a park a couple of blocks away but at 3, 6, and 8 years old, it’s not safe for the kids to be out and about exploring on their own without an adult. The backyard gets boring. Did I mention I have to actually be inside cooking and cleaning a lot of the time so I can’t be taking them on outdoor adventures all them time. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? My kids don’t have the chance to do much exploring on their own, without me, my husband or a caregiver of some sort breathing down their neck. Don’t step in that puddle! You can’t pick those flowers. Stay away from that part of the creek–you could fall in and get wet and then you’ll cry to me about it! Don’t poke your sister with that stick! 

This summer has been a challenging one to say the least. With not enough to do and without the structure of the school-year schedule, the kids have been fighting a ton. I don’t remember fighting that frequently with my sister growing up and my husband didn’t fight with his brothers this much. Did we fight? Yes. But it was different.

Both my husband and I grew up in rural areas—he grew up here in Tennessee and I grew up in Vermont. We both had access to streams, woods and areas without a lot of other folks and speeding cars driven by texting drivers. We had more freedom. I remember playing in the woods behind our house when I was younger than Kate, at age six, is now. My mother was not constantly nagging at me and rather than being mischievous and sneaking away because mom was not watching, I poked around and climbed and wandered…but never too far. My own sense of judgement kicked in and my own sense of self-preservation. My kids rarely get the chance to to use their own judgement in those kind of circumstances. And it’s too bad.

Another interesting thing that happens when you give kids a little Lord of the Flies-style freedom is this: without an adult around to micromanage every interaction they have, they have to strategize, problem solve and work together. How are we going to cross that swampy area on the way to the stream? Can we climb on that fallen log to get there? The things I was doing as kid weren’t dangerous and my parents had been with us many times to the stream and the woods. They knew there were no serious hazards. The water was shallow enough in the stream that we could wade up to our shins but the risk of drowning or getting swept away…not even possible. But could we fall in the mud? Get a scratch from poking around in thorny bushes or come home with poison ivy? Yes, and heck, we might have even broken a wrist or arm if we fell off that fallen log. I don’t think of myself as the type of parent who feels the need to protect my kids from learning experiences and challenges that might involve a little discomfort, but more often than not, when I see an avoidable incident about to happen, my Mommy Mouth opens up and before I can stop myself, I find myself cautioning, nagging, reminding and scolding.

Without the safety of a grown-up chaperone kids act differently. We’ve all seen how a child who falls in front of a parent is much more likely to cry than one who thinks mom or dad isn’t around to help. My kids also seem to fight less. A natural hierarchy develops. I’ve seen this happen when I let Kate and Lauren walk Clover (the dog) around the block. Stuck in the house or even the backyard, they squabble. Let them out in the big wide world, even if it’s not too far from home, and suddenly Kate will listen to Lauren. She looks to her sister as someone who can keep her safe and Lauren feels the responsibility to do so. They also offer comfort to each other if the other gets hurt–something they also don’t seem to do when I am around to dry the tears. They are no longer working against each other, they are working together. My girls know there are real dangers out in the world; strange people who snatch children, other dogs who might not be safe and cars that drive too fast and yet, because they are young, they still make foolish decisions, like riding their bikes onto the street right in front of  a parked car. I wish they had a safer place to practice being independent. Kids have been out in the world alone, making decisions for themselves, for centuries and they are capable of critical thinking, problem solving and team work much earlier than we give them credit for.

When we arrive back in Boulder, guess what I am going to do? I’m going to look at houses outside of town, on more land, where we could get a goat and some chickens and who knows what else. I’ve seen how good this increased room to spread their wings is for the children and for my husband and for me. Less TV time, more outside and maybe even a little less together time would be good for all us.

Did you have more or less freedom to roam than your kids do today?