My earliest memories are of wandering around the forest trying to keep up with my big sister. We lived in the middle of nowhere in Northern California and we would spend our days under the thick blanket of trees, picking berries, catching snakes and frogs, and sometimes going to the dump to watch bears pick through the trash.
Occasionally, if I was lucky, my sister would bike around town and let me ride on her handlebars. Of course, there weren’t any helmets (yes, I absolutely enforce the helmet rule now — not all tenets of modern parenting are a bad thing), just gravel roads and steep hills and torn elbow skin.
Once, when we were out exploring, I fell on a rotten log and got thousands of slivers in the palms of my hands that my mom had to take out while I was sleeping. I remember the entire feeling of that day; the smell of the rain-soaked earth, the taste of my salty tears, how the palms of my hands looked like broken-up railroad tracks.
I don’t remember my parents ever being out there with us or even telling us when to be home. We came home for dinner because we were starving. And my mom is the best cook in the world, so there was no way were going to miss her Swedish meatballs or chile rellenos or French dip sandwiches.
My parents were loving, attentive parents. They just trusted us. And they trusted that, while there might be danger out in the world, the odds were that we would be just fine and would invariably learn more outdoors than sitting inside the house.
Now, I have two kids of my own. I live in the middle of the forest. But we live in modern times, and the ideas of what parents should and shouldn’t allow their children to do have changed a lot. I find myself questioning all of my decisions. Decisions that seem fine instinctually. Of course, he can ride his bike a quarter of a mile on the dirt road to his friend’s house. Of course, they can walk to the magic rocks by themselves and play unsupervised. Of course, they can run around as naked as the day they were born if they want. The deer certainly won’t care.
But the ideas of what parents should and shouldn’t do whisper to me too. Well, there are bears, and bad people, and cars and roads, and the whole big unpredictable world out there. Letting them be wild and feral with tangled hair and messy faces and too-short pants just isn’t the way we do things.
The rise of helicopter parenting tells me that I should feel fear all of the time. I need to operate at “red alert” status. It’s as if collective society just decided one day that kids weren’t functional humans. That they needed to be underfoot and hovered over. That kids aren’t capable of making good decisions on their own.
And with that comes the reality that I will be judged (and possibly ticketed) if I leave my kids in the car to run into the post office and mail a letter. So much so that I won’t even tell you whether or not I’ve done this.
When I was a child, I spent so many collective hours alone in the car. My sister and I would make up games, or read, or doodle. And I’m pretty sure my mom had a much better time shopping than she would have if I was next to her begging for all the stupid crap in the toy aisle — I specifically remember plastic high heels that always broke immediately.
So my heart screams at me to let them go be wild little forest children, making amazing memories, while my head tries to guilt me into all the horrible scenarios that could happen — or the judgment I might face.
What if? What if? What if?
Well, I reject you, modern notion of motherhood. I think you are boring and dumb with your khaki pants and Tupperware parties and safe childhoods where the scariest thing that could happen is that a storm knocks the power out and the iPads don’t work anymore. I reject you and your idea of what constitutes a childhood. Childhood is not just white walls, and gaming chairs, and parents being in control of every activity, outfit, and thought.
Childhood is for running so fast that you think you might actually know how to fly. Childhood is tangled hair and dirty fingernails and picking the scabs off your knees until they bleed again. Childhood is an unpredictable imaginative thought that only comes from staring at a blade of grass for an entire afternoon. Childhood is falling down on some rotten wood so that you remember what it feels like to be alive. I want my kids to remember some days in such vivid detail that it breaks their heart with nostalgia.
I recently asked my mom if she ever worried about us playing in the forest, if she ever had any feelings that we were in any kind of danger out there, and she looked at me like I had two heads. “No, I never worried about you. You were out there having fun!”
I like my mom’s style.