The Call of the Wild + Free
Hi, friends. I hope this finds you well and enjoying these last weeks of summer.
I’m excited to share this excerpt from Ainsley Arment’s upcoming book, The Call of the Wild + Free, which discusses a major problem in our society that many of us have noticed, which is that our children are so often not allowed to actually be children.
She’s a gifted writer, and she makes important points about making ample time and space for our children to be wild + free.
Let’s spread the word.
Nine years ago, I put my five-year-old son, Wyatt, on a bus for his first day of school and did what nearly every other mother does-- I followed it. I watched his little blond head bopping above the seat as the bus wound through the neighborhood. I drifted behind at every stop, watching the other kids get on and my son looking out the window. I hovered in the school parking lot as he walked into the building. And then I proceeded to cry at the loss of his childhood.
I know, I know, this is what every red-blooded kid goes through in life. It’s a rite of passage for growing up. Going to school is what kids do. It helps them become confident, independent, socialized, educated, and capable of thriving in the world. I did it. You probably did it. So I went along with it. After all, I didn’t know any different. And Wyatt thrived in school. He made friends. He got good grades. He impressed his teachers. He won Citizen of the Month, and we proudly displayed the banner in our front yard. I joined the class for field trips, birthdays, and end-of-year celebrations. When he was home, we went on adventures, played outside, read lots of books, and made the most of our time together. He learned to read and sit in a circle, and at the end of the year, I felt proud of us both. He made it. I made it. I decided half-day kindergarten wasn’t half bad. But then it was over.
The next year, we started all over again. This time for a full seven-hour day. It wasn’t long before I noticed some changes in my firstborn. His disposition toward us changed. He seemed more distant. He became more interested in what other kids thought of him. He was losing his childlike innocence. I saw the light go out in his eyes.
My son had always cherished his childhood. He wasn’t in a rush to grow up. He empathized with those who were hurting or suffering. He was troubled by coarse language. And he could easily discern the negative attitudes of other people. By being thrust into the rushing stream of peers I couldn’t filter, pressures I couldn’t anticipate, and institutionalized learning with people who didn’t know or love my son as much as I did, he was becoming someone other than who he was meant to be.
Also, I missed my boy. The bus arrived at eight o’clock in the morning and came home at nearly four in the afternoon. We had a little time for play before dinner, but then he had an hour of homework, and then it was time for bed.
It didn’t seem right that strangers got to spend more time with my son than I did. I wanted to give him a childhood. And I wanted to experience it with him.
I’m just going to say it. Childhood has been lost. To video games, to sports leagues, to after-school programs, to day care, to mobile devices, to peer pressure, to Netflix, to “gifted” classes, to extracurricular activities, to homework, to being carted between split homes every other weekend, and to busy schedules, just like their parents.
Some say this is progress. That we’ve evolved as a species to the point where children are able to act like adults, carry the same responsibilities, and handle the same pressures.
And to a degree, this is true. Science has taught us so much about the young mind. We’ve learned there are billions of neurons making connections in a young child, that working memory is key to intelligence, and that the brain’s ability to decipher the subtle sounds of foreign languages begins to diminish after the age of five.
We’ve learned that the immature brain is capable of extraordinary feats and that it is most flexible early in life to engage with a wide range of experiences, languages, and interactions. We know this and much more. But the fact that a child is capable of so much doesn’t mean she is meant to operate at full capacity all the time.
In fact, a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association revealed that the average reported stress in children during the school year exceeds that of adults. Other studies reveal that children simply cannot learn under stress.
This isn’t progress. It’s preposterous.
All our knowledge about young minds has made us a bit neurotic. Rather than using it to supplement a natural learning environment and help us discern what is best for our families, we chase down every opportunity to make sure our kids don’t miss out on getting into the best preschools and private schools, on being the first to read, on being three grade levels ahead in math, and on getting accepted into the gifted classes and honors programs.
These are all things that boost our pride as parents, to be sure. But our pursuit of them stems from something deeper and purer-a desire to give our children the best childhood possible. We want to give them what we didn’t have, whether it’s an advantage in life or unlimited options when they get older.
And we want to give them the gift of having a “good” parent.
But in the interest of giving our children the very best of everything-education, experiences, safety, gadgets, clothing, and toys-we have traded their souls for a life in the rat race. We have forgotten that for everything gained, something is lost.
“Remember when ‘ free range children’ were just called children?”
The “start them early” mentality has replaced the mind- set that “late is okay” on social development, relational connections, and stress-reducing environments for children to fully develop. Not just for their brains, but their whole beings- body, mind, and soul.
Homeschooling pioneer John Holt wrote, “There seems to be an unspoken idea, in instruction of the young, that the people who start the fastest will go the farthest. But that’s not only an unproven theory; it’s not even a tested theory. The assumption that the steeper the learning curve, the higher it will go, is also unfounded. If we did things a little differently, we might find out that people whose learning curves were much slower might later on go up just as high or higher.”
Our children need our time, not our intelligence. They bloom with love, not perfect language skills. They need mercy, not intellectual mastery. And they will learn-indeed, truly learn-when they are given time to explore ideas without constant fact-checking and examination.
Plutarch said that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” How have we come so far and yet failed to remember what the ancient scholars and teachers knew?
RECLAIMING THE WONDER OF CHILDHOOD
Childhood is not meant to be merely preparation for adulthood. It’s a time to be cherished, protected, and preserved. Our kids will have many opportunities for careers, discipline, and hard work. But they get only one childhood. So let’s make it magical.
A magical childhood isn’t about having the best toys, gadgets, and vacations. It’s actually the opposite. It’s about simplicity. A magical childhood is about freedom. Freedom to explore, discover, and play.
Let’s take them out to the rivers and forests, the mountains and the oceans. Let’s let them daydream for hours at a time. Let’s let them experience boredom and, in so doing, give them a fertile seedbed for imagination, play, and wonder. Let’s let them swim in the creeks, run in the fields, get dirty, stay up late to see the stars, and catch bullfrogs with their bare hands.
Let’s not force adulthood upon them just yet.
Educator, historian, and author Susan Wise Bauer wrote, “Children are not miniature adults. Requesting them to learn how to deal with adult levels of pressure is not good teaching- or parenting.”3
All of us have things about our childhood we hope to redeem- how we were treated, what we missed out on, words that cut us down, or experiences that wounded us. We also have things we hope to reclaim for our own children. They’re different for everyone. But I’m willing to bet they were moments of being wild + free.
I remember canoeing alone on the river behind my house when I was a girl. I remember running through the woods, pretending I was Pocahontas. I remember sledding down the hill behind our neighborhood. I remember the sun-drenched days of playing on the shores of Ocean City, New Jersey, during visits with my grandmother. I remember the hours I spent in the woods. It was up on the hill behind my house among the spruce and fir trees that I figured out who I was.
So much of a modern-day childhood is designed to assist parents as they work longer hours to pay the bills and to allay their fears that they’re not doing everything possible to help their kids succeed in life. Every day there is a new app, toy, or curriculum to help our kids know more, do more, and be smarter. What used to exist abundantly in every childhood has now become a commodity, a product to be traded or sold for the sake of our technologically driven future or, worse, our own parental goals.
But we cannot give our children wonder, curiosity, or a desire to learn. Children are born with these things. Wonder is the birthright of every child. It’s the natural tendency to look at the world and want to explore it. Wonder is triggered by beauty, by new discoveries, and by our imaginations. Children live in a constant state of wonder. They’re always learning, exploring, and discovering new things.
Children are born with all the wonder they will ever need.
Our job is not to take it away.
Excerpted from THE CALL OF THE WILD+FREE by Ainsley Arment. Reprinted with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2019. https://www.bewildandfree.org/book
Ainsley Arment is the founder and leader of Wild + Free and co-host of the weekly Wild + Free Podcast. As she leads this movement of raising her kids and homeschooling in a new way, she thinks deeply about making the most out of life and ensuring that her children have a fertile seedbed for their own uniqueness and creativity. She and her husband Ben are raising their five kids, Wyatt, Dylan, Cody, Annie, and Millie, in Virginia Beach.