Currently, in our society, we are much better at protecting our children than we are at allowing them to develop independence and a little daring. With all of the best intentions we have sequestered our children in our homes. Fear of automobiles, pedophiles, injuries, and lawsuits has denied our children the opportunities we had growing up. We roller-skated without knee pads and helmets, walked to school, to our friends’ houses, and to stores without supervision. We played in the schoolyard, climbed trees and fences, and stayed out after dark. So few children do the same today.
In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Traditions to Raise Self-Reliant Children, Wendy Mogel notes that it is also a parent’s job to teach children to manage risks. Mogel contends that if young people today were faced with the opportunity to do something dramatic and life-changing, like the Exodus from Egypt, most would decline, enslaved more by fear than by Pharaoh.
During the second half of childhood, parents need to help children manage risks as a counter balance to the protective home environment we have developed during their early years.
For ten years my wife and I worked at a summer institute in Maine. This was a fine arrangement for our family as it allowed us to leave the heat and humidity of Washington in the summer and to spend six weeks in northern New England. From the time our daughter was four, we all headed north in July and our daughter took part in the program that was provided for the children. In many ways the environment there was ideal. The Steiner Institute was housed on a small college campus and my daughter and her summer friends could walk anywhere without restriction.
Just prior to her fourteenth birthday, our daughter began voicing reservations about returning to Maine. She complained that there was nothing to do. We reminded her that there were art classes, kayaking trips, beach excursions, swimming, innumerable opportunities provided by the program, but she was adamant. So we began to explore other options. My wife did some research to find alternatives and discovered a wilderness canoe trip solely for teenage girls led by young women guides. This trip would be vigorous and rugged. The group would head off for a ten-day adventure with extensive paddling and extended portages. They would have to camp out, cook their own food, make do without the comforts of home (no showers, no toilets), and be at the mercy of the bugs and the weather. We thought for sure that our daughter would express no interest whatsoever. We were wrong. She wanted to go.
Sending her on this trip was a huge step for us. We had to leave her with her brother in Boston and know that she was getting on a plane for Canada and that when she got off one of the tour leaders, whom we had never met, would be there to meet her and a few other girls and take them six hours north of Toronto to the base camp where they would join the group to begin their trip. The only communication that we would have during the two weeks that she was away was a phone message that she had arrived in Toronto safely and two email messages—one when they left the base-camp for their canoe trip and one when they returned.
At the end of the two weeks, my wife and I drove back to Boston eager to pick her up at the airport. When she came through customs with the stewardess, she flew as an unaccompanied minor, we were there waiting. She looked so pleased with herself, self confident and mature. She was strong from the canoeing and portaging, healthy from the days outdoors, and different, not just because of the hair rinse that the girls had shared on their adventure, but because she had been through a rite of passage and was so pleased with herself.
This year she was eager to return. She saved her babysitting money and spent nineteen days in the wilderness braving mosquitoes, whitewater, and the SARS epidemic. Protecting our children is essential, but not protecting them can be just as important.