“Sure,” I said, as Max was already slipping his Bogs on. The boys had been fighting since they’d gotten off the bus. A trip to the creek, nestled in the woods below our house, seemed like a good way to break the energy. I was hoping not to say, “Be kind, please,” or “Use your words instead of hitting,” for a while.
Max and Jake sprinted ahead, while I tried to catch up. For a moment I paused, thinking of all the time I spent roaming my childhood neighborhood alone or with friends.
At 6 years old, we are just starting to let Max be outside alone for short periods of time. In the age of intensive parenting, it feels illicit. My husband and I peep out the window at him every few minutes, despite the fact that we both enjoyed much more freedom growing up. But two kindergartners in the woods by themselves, one of whom isn’t even mine? I followed them.
Swatting away the small mosquitoes that seem to have sprouted from their larvae overnight, I trailed behind the boys. My nerves, jangled from refereeing the boys’ arguments, settled as I took in the sprouting ferns and the whoosh of the creek.
Max waded through the water to the other side, while Jake scurried across a fallen log that bridged the two sides of the creek. I held my breath, imagining my charge falling into the shallow but muddy creek. “Be careful, you guys!” I bellowed.
“Hey, Max!” a girl’s voice floated in. The three of us scanned the woods, and saw a fifth-grader from the neighborhood coming down the hill opposite us, her younger sister close behind. Max and Jake caught up with them.
The four kids were now all on the other side of the creek than I was. I looked down at my shoes, wishing I’d worn boots instead. I watched for a minute as the kids ran around beneath the budding trees. Should I cross the creek, shadowing the kids? I imagined my parents traipsing through the woods after me on one of my early adventures. The thought made me stifle a giggle. Though Max is strong-willed, he is also physically cautious like I am. I decided to stay on this side of the creek as long as I could see them.
Looking around, I mused, as I often do, about how lucky my kids are to grow up along a creek nestled into several acres of woods. I smiled, thinking about how huge the woods must seem to them. I remembered the hours I’d spent exploring what seemed like a forest between my childhood home and my brother’s best friend’s house. As a grown-up driving by my old neighborhood, I couldn’t believe that the forest was really just a lot-sized smattering of trees.
“Hey, do you guys want to see a dead raccoon?” I heard one of the girls say.
The words shook me from my reverie.
“Uh, no, no, no,” I yelled across the creek, but the boys were already following them.
“Well, we’re not sure if it’s dead or not. It might just be hurt,” the older girl said.
“Hey, I don’t think … ” I started to say, but no one was listening. I briefly imagined an ailing, rabid raccoon, lying in wait to maul my son. It was much more likely that it was dead, though. The boys scurried after the girls, and I followed from the opposite bank, worrying about the emotional trauma seeing a dead mammal might inflict on my sensitive son.
“Maxie!” I yelled. “Come back!”
But they were already there. I could attempt to leap across the creek and body-block Max from seeing the rabid or rotting raccoon. Or I could allow him this little Stand By Me moment. Isn’t seeing a dead animal with a group of friends a necessary rite of passage?
When I was about 8, I was strolling down my street—by myself—when a motorcyclist ripped by, hitting and killing my best friend’s cat. Though disturbed by the fact that the cat’s tail continued to spin around from the impact, I was mostly fascinated that the cat had pooped. For weeks afterward, my best friend and I dramatically reenacted the scene on my front lawn—one of us played the speeding motorcyclist, while the other got down on hands and knees, lifting one leg in wide circles to demonstrate the spinning tail.
While I still wasn’t sure that I’d made the right decision by allowing my son to check out the raccoon corpse, I knew he would probably be okay. I was, after all, only moderately traumatized by witnessing the death of my best friend’s cat. And if Max was not okay, his school has a great social worker—something I didn’t have access to in elementary school.
“Hey, it’s alive!” Max said, making his way back towards me.
“Cool!” Jake yelled.
“How do you know?” the younger girl asked him.
“Its eyes were open!” I heard Max say excitedly.
My chest expanded at the display of my son’s innocence. The fifth-grade girl and I exchanged a quick glance. At 10, I was pretty sure she knew that a motionless, open-eyed raccoon was a dead raccoon. Suddenly, against the tall, peeling birch trees, Max seemed so small.
“Do you want to see, Mom?” Max asked, reaching out his hand to help me cross the creek. We’d spotted deer and turkeys in our yard, but an inert raccoon was an exciting new development.
“That’s okay,” I said, trying not to scrunch up my face.
Soon after, the girls headed back up one hill to their house, while Max, Jake and I headed up the opposite hill to ours.
“Hey, be gentle, boys!” I hollered as they batted sticks at each other.
“We’re just playing Star Wars, Mom,” Max said.
There’s a lot to be said for the discretion I had growing up in the late ’70s and ’80s. Outside, with my friends, we worked things out for ourselves, only darting home to our parents when a fight with a friend got out of control, or someone fell off their bike and bloodied a knee.
But there’s also value in sticking close to my children when I can. Today I straddled the line. I stayed nearby while also curbing my tendency to shelter Max from life’s harsher realities. I got to see that he is big enough to cross a creek and trek off to see a possibly dead animal, but small enough to think its open eyes meant it was just lounging.
I won’t always be there when my kids head into the woods or the world, but today I was, and I’m glad.