When I was growing up, things were different. Different as in I remember riding in the backseat of the car, standing on the “hump” in between the two front seats, while my dad chain smoked with the windows rolled up. Different like that. If you were fancy, you had a touch-tone phone, if you were extra fancy, you had a VHS player.
Parenting was different back then, too. I can only make observational conclusions since I was a kid, and parenting wasn’t my job, but I’m pretty confident it wasn’t the same game as we parents play now. I walked to school without an adult and I walked home without an adult (Uphill, 10 miles, in the snow, both ways!) Some days we took the train tracks home, even though we weren’t supposed to. We saved our lunch money to buy candy and Garbage Pail Kids at the local liquor store, even though we weren’t supposed to. We smoked candy cigarettes while calling 411 on the pay phone in the 7/11 parking lot, even though we weren’t supposed to. Wild and free. It was a different world.
I’m pretty sure reigning us children into submission was a task that requires creativity. I come from a family of six. My parents, My three older brothers, and me. My brothers were WILD. I have stories about them frightening the lonely neighbor down the road, regularly ditching church AND school, and secretly digging underground fortresses in the back yard so they could play Dungeons and Dragons without permission. Keeping them within the boundaries of safety was a job that has likely resulted in my parents losing years off of their life span.
We traveled quite a bit. We had an over-cab camper that barely fit the six of us, but we made it work, and the memories that flood my brain are happy. We loved to camp. Places, where we could have a big, raging bonfire, were where the real stuff was at, so we regularly went to the desert. We had a routine there, and my parents had a chance to relax into the safety net that that routine had built. The boys could be free, create a bonfire as big as a car, throw rocks, shoot BB guns, yet stay within the limits they knew were acceptable.
Occasionally though, we expanded our adventures into the mountains, and into designated campgrounds that required a tighter leash on children. I mean, you can’t just allow your three male children to have a “who can build the biggest bonfire” competition in the middle of the forest the same way you could in the desert. You couldn’t allow your kids to freely and rambunctiously roam the campground where other people were trying to enjoy the solitude of nature.
This is where the parenting creativity came in. My dad has one of those imaginations. He believes the stories of the Loch Ness Monster, alien abductions, and Publisher’s Clearing House. I’m not saying they aren’t true….. I’m just saying. The man has a story for every word in the English language, and one night while we were camping in one of those designated mountain campgrounds, he had a story for us. He asked us if we wanted to go for a little “hike” in the woods. Of course! What kid doesn’t want to explore the wilderness and it’s mysteries? My mom stayed behind to finish setting up camp while the five of us romped off into the woods in a random, trailess direction. We don’t go very far at all — just far enough for my dad accomplish his goal — when we come upon a large downed tree. It was a perfect make-shift bench. Dad pointed to the log and told us all to have a seat, “I’ve got something really important to tell you guys.” We all find a spot on the tree trunk and wait for the announcement. My dad pulls up some dramatic flare, and he sort of looks behind his shoulder as if to make sure no-one is watching. He gestures for us to huddle into him, so he can quietly tell us his secret. “Kids,” He says, “Do you know what the Sasquatch is?” He asks sort of hesitantly. We look to each other, searching for any familiarity in the word within the others’ faces. Nothing. Dad proceeds to tell us of a beast 10 feet tall, covered in hair, ferocious, with giant feet, who will steal and eat little children who find themselves alone in the woods without their parents to protect them. “And the Sasquatch lives in THESE woods.” Needless to say, we were absolutely terrified. “Fire and noise attracts the beast, so you have to make sure that you stay within our assigned campsite and within eyesight.”
Harsh parenting? Perhaps. At the time, I was so scared of what was in the dark woods behind the glow of the fire light. I didn’t dare leave the warm comfort of my mother’s lap. But now….I’ve grown up with a pretty healthy understanding of the world around me and I’m not afraid of walking in the woods at night. I love to backpack and sleep in the randomness of the wilderness, so it didn’t negatively effect who I turned out to be. I am a parent to two smaller kids who like to test the boundaries of their limits, and I can now understand this creative limit that we need to adopt in our role of keeping our kids safe. We go camping a lot now, and I may not tell my children the story of the Sasquatch — I’ll save THAT story for their Papa. They have definitely heard stories about coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, rattle snakes, and other possible dangers like rock slides, ravines, and poison bushes. A healthy fear of what we do know is instilled in my kids and for good reason. We have an obligation to show our kids the beauty AND the beast of this world around us, and respecting the natural danger that is inherent to this wonderful place is just as important as teaching them about the simple magic around them and how to do the most basic of tasks going forward into their journey of life. Now in my parenting life, my story with MY kids is a bit different, it goes a little something like this: “Hey kids, do you know how a mountain lion hunts their prey?” And I don’t spare the grim details of what could happen to a small child who has wandered from their protective pod of humans. Harsh? Perhaps. But do you know who’s kids AREN’T traipsing around in the woods alone where the real mountain lions live? Mine. Mine are sitting comfy and cozy in my lap, with a healthy fear of what’s moving about in the woods on the other side of the campfire’s glow.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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