So this woman, Lenore Skenazy comes on the radio this week with talk show host Dennis Prager, and they’re talking about the insanity of government, health professionals and other lunatic fringes whose mission is either to suck all of the joy of a kid’s life, wrap them in a cocoon of bubble wrap, or turn us parents into bigger idiots than we already are. I probably wouldn’t have remembered any of it except that Ms. Skenazy’s website is called Free-Range Kids, which stuck in my otherwise porous brain. That and the fact my kids used to shit sand every time we went to the beach. Both of them survived to adulthood, and while I escaped spousal and government punishment, I did deal with some pretty heavy diapers.
Anyway, the whole exchange made me think back upon my own childhood and the guiding lessons I learned through experience. Importantly, a little wisdom I learned when I was fourteen from Ms. Maggie.
Like most folks my generation, I could write a book on the “abuse” we took from our parents. The cars didn’t always have seat belts, much less child seats. Our parents smoked in the car…with the windows up. Air condition in the car, when it worked, was a luxury. If felt carsick, they stopped the car, I took off running down some dark alley to avoid barfing in public, and they didn’t call in a missing child report when I didn’t come back to the car in 5 minutes. If we stopped at some rest area out in the styx to have a picnic, they sent me into the filthy bathrooms barefoot and alone, let me eat my picnic in the sun with no sunscreen whilst drinking a Coke with yellow jackets buzzing around the lip of the can, and eating off a picnic table cleaned only by rain and ants. And that was just the car. If I think about the hazards like bicycles, the woods, any type of water, strangers, etc.; well, like I said, every kid of my generation could probably write the same book.
But this is really about Ms. Maggie and the two lessons she taught me when I was fourteen. Ms. Maggie gave me my first job as a junior counselor at Camp Grasshopper, a day camp operating in the sunny southern city of Atlanta, Georgia. About a week before camp started, we had a couple of days of training to learn the camp songs and what activities we would be leading, what the kids’ schedules would be, and the two important safety notices by which I would come to raise my kids.
The first was this. Never help a kid climb up something (like a jungle gym or any other play structure). If they can get up there on their own, they can figure out how to get down on their own. If they need your help climbing, then they have no business up there in the first place. A blinding flash of common sense, right? But a great lesson in standing down that helped my kids gain self confidence, set goals for themselves, push their boundaries, learn how to stand on their own and fall down on their own. My mom certainly didn’t have Ms. Maggie, but every pair of long pants I owned had patches on them, and my knees are scarred to this day. I suppose my Mom somehow knew this rule and allowed me to be a free range kid.
The second rule Ms. Maggie taught me was this: Hot dogs can basically be eaten frozen. The kids brought their own sack lunches every day but the last day of camp. On the last day each counselor would march their assigned campers through the blistering hot sun, across the itchy field and into the woods for a cookout to celebrate a great week of camp. Once at our “campsite” we would make a fire, roast hot dogs on sticks, make s’mores and basically have a big’ol time. There was no safety instructions related being careful in the broiling sun, the danger of sharp sticks, matches, keeping the kids from being roasted alive in the fire, ground attacks by chiggers, trudging through poison ivy, eating cooked marsh mellows that might fall on the ground, or keeping the kids hydrated. The counselors were all pretty smart, and I suppose Ms. Maggie figured we all had plenty of common sense or they wouldn’t have hired us. What we did not know however, is that the average attention span of a five-year-old is about thirty seconds, and that was about how much time a five-year is willing to hold a compressed tube of snouts, ears, butts, tails and other associated chemicals impaled upon a sharp stick over a camp fire. Hot dogs, as it turns out are basically pre-cooked. This wisdom enabled us to focus on sharp sticks turned into sharp swords in the hands of five-year-olds rather than worry about the dangers of feeding them raw pork parts.
Thanks to these two rules and Ms. Maggie, I can happily report my children never died from uncooked pork or from playing on a playground. And they never died on my wife’s watch either. I can’t say my kids were truly “free-range” as the electric collars did a pretty good job of keeping them in the yard. Other than that though, they had a pretty long leash.