This past March, The Atlantic stirred the parental pot by publishing, “The Overprotected Kid.” The article details trends in parenting over the last thirty years and goes on to document some of the research regarding those trends, particularly around a child’s sense of risk. The ensuing controversy was likely predictable. Links to the article exploded in my inbox. Most people thought I would appreciate the article’s general sentiment: kids need to be left alone in order for them to adequately explore the potential risks of their world. Full disclosure: They were right; I do appreciate the article’s general sentiment. However, looking more closely at the brouhaha that broiled in the comment section, I realize there is more to say.
As is often the case, two camps were quickly established. One camp was composed of adults nostalgic for the unchaperoned heroics of their youth. Though many weren’t sure they had learned any valuable lessons, their sense was that it was all worth it and probably a necessary passage of childhood. The second camp could probably be summed up by the maxim: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. And many of those in Camp 2 seemed to know someone who, either figuratively or literally, had..
Just like the many people who triumphantly forwarded the article on to me, many at first glance would assume Wilderness Youth Project (WYP) to be squarely in Camp 1, the pro-risk camp. However, lost in all the rhetoric is a concept that is fundamental to WYP, one that allows us to explore risk with a greater sense of security and purpose and one that sits squarely in the middle of the all-or-nothing approach to supervision; that concept is mentoring. Mentoring is a process of encouraging growth from the periphery. A mentor never loses sight of the idea that growth is an individual responsibility that can, at best, be supported by another individual or community. Two primary traits of a good mentor are awareness and intention.
In regard to the aforementioned “camps,” children do not have to be abandoned to adequately experience risk, but if a parent/guardian is omnipresent, there is no risk from which to learn. The first step to bridging this chasm is awareness. Being aware of the hazards your child faces in general or during specific circumstances is critical. On a typical WYP program, when we arrive at a location, the first thing we do is review the potential hazards: poison oak, deep water, aggressive surf, crumbly rocks, the possibility of being separated, rattlesnakes. Maybe we’re using knives or making bows and arrows, maybe we’ve found a dead animal – each experience begins with an acknowledgement of the associated hazards. None of these inhibit the experience. The greater the actual danger, the greater will be our physical presence as guardians. But most importantly, the less the actual danger, the less our physical presence is necessary. And that is the goal, that to the best of our abilities we’ve conveyed to the children enough information that they can create their own experience.
Another practice of a WYP mentor is to add intention to the independence. Ultimately, we are trying to deepen the children’s connection to nature which starts with comfort derived from a practiced awareness. Not just of the hazards noted above but of the robust sensory feast that is a hallmark of any place of wild character. When the kids leave our presence, set off on their own, we try and add a twist to their wander: bring back a report on what the bird behavior was like, were the blackberries beginning to flower, remain unseen from the other group, gather firewood. The point is not to fill their time. However, adding the right intention nudges them into a deeper awareness and it serves to support the second more elusive goal of keeping you, the designated guardian, in their mind as they begin the task of making their own choices. And, most importantly, it gives you context to extract the story of the adventure once they return. Teasing out the story of what your child did while they were unchaperoned is the greatest practice of all; it cycles right back to increasing your own awareness. At WYP we try and end every program with “a story of the day.” It may be as simple as a child saying her favorite part, or maybe it’s more directive, but the overarching point is that the children feel that what they did was acknowledged by another. As mentors we get an insight as to how different children managed their independence and we get to make informed choices about the best way to expand those experiences.
Raising children is far more complex than running a WYP program but the practices we use to foster nature connection are just as applicable to deciding whether your children are able to walk to school on their own. The research cited in Ms. Rosin’s article point to the conclusion that children are healthier, more creative and more resilient when they are allowed to develop a strong sense of independence. This will not happen without multitudes of opportunities to both succeed and fail. However, independence does not necessitate the absence of care. Taking time to explore places and assess the appropriate hazards with your children is the first step to letting them do it by themselves. Taking time to hear their stories when they return is a practice that will keep you with them forever.