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Are My Kids Overprotected? I Hope Not

Photograph by Getty Images

“Hey! It’s my turn to use the axe!”

I sat bolt upright in my sleeping bag, as most any modern-day mother would upon hearing those words. Then, I noticed that my two junior woodsmen were fast asleep in the tent, just a few feet away from me. I pulled the covers over my head and fell back to sleep. After all, isn’t that what vacations are for?

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This really happened to me, during a multifamily camping trip last summer. A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid,” reports that today’s youngsters don’t get to experience enough risk. My children, on the other hand, probably push the modern boundaries of wandering, experimenting, building and sometimes even, fighting.

The vacation was an extension of the Adventure Guides circle my husband and sons have been part of. In case you’re not familiar with the group, you might recognize it under its former name, Indian Guides (or its sister organization, Indian Princesses). Loosely affiliated with the YMCA, the Adventure Guides are an alternative to the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Where the Scouts have starchy uniforms, the Guides have printed T-shirts. There are few lessons and no badges. The monthly father-child meetings might involve laser tag, hiking or simply unstructured hanging out at some unfortunate family’s home.

No place do the Guides’ free spirits shine brighter than at their campouts. While there are some requisite group activities—archery, skit night and campfire songs—there is a lot of downtime, too. That’s when the dads get to talk to other men who aren’t their co-workers, and the kids get a chance to ... run wild. They come home caked with mud and overflowing with stories about whittling sticks, building forts across streams, and screaming at the top of their lungs.

I’m not sure what I’m more afraid of: that they will fall ... or that they’ll never learn to fly.

I’ve never been on one of these campouts—they are strictly father-son or father-daughter affairs. But I can imagine they are a two-day taste of the kind of freedom I took for granted as a little girl. My childhood was spent bouncing from one new suburb to another. What these subdivisions lacked in charm, they made up for in improvised play areas. We didn’t need parks intentionally created for experimentation and exploration; we had half-built houses and empty lots. After the construction crews left for the day, those skeleton split-levels would become our jungle gyms. We neighborhood kids would climb up and down stairs with no railings, filling our pockets with castaway bathroom tiles and bent nails. Other summer evenings were spent wandering through fields that had until recently been farms or ranches, as evidenced by the occasional rusty horseshoe. No parents came with us. I suppose they figured our short legs could only take us so far, and we’d come back when they stood on their front lawns yelling our names.

My oldest turned 11 before I let him ride his bike out of my view, and my 9-year-old has yet to walk home from school unaccompanied. Their playgrounds are covered with recycled tire treads, and the yard duties don’t even let them run on the blacktop during recess. I’m not sure what I’m more afraid of: that they will fall ... or that they’ll never learn to fly.

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As much as I want them to learn by exploring and working things out on their own, I sometimes hear tidbits that make me wonder if all this free-range play is too much. Isn’t there some middle ground between bubble-wrapped and Lord of the Flies? The axe incident was a peek behind the curtain. I’m all for exploration, but it would have been really easy for someone to miss the log and chop off a toe, instead. What if the kids hurt each other while jockeying for the axe?

Just like adults, kids need some balance between risk and restraint. Luckily, the group of families on our camping trip included one father who leads a Boy Scout troop. Over breakfast later that morning, the Scoutmaster produced the axe. “I took this away from the kids this morning,” he announced. “They were standing—on a log. There was no circle of safety. Someone could have gotten hurt.”

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