Freedom and Childhood: What Have We Lost? And How Do We Get (Some of) It Back?

This isn’t about the virus–but the virus amplifies the whole challenge tremendously. I’ve been thinking once again about the freedoms I had when I was growing up, and how my sons’ lives are oh-so-different.

This isn’t the usual “we left the house in the morning and except for meals, we stayed out until dark every night” theme, either. That is a fine thing to contemplate, and to try to fix too. My brothers and sisters and I sure did a lot of roaming freely for endless stretches ourselves.

I’m talking about much bigger things, though. I was discussing with my older son just last week how, when I was his age, I’d regularly head off on bicycle rides alone–20, 30, sometimes 40 miles each. I’d be gone for hours and hours, out on rural roads, and nobody knew where I was.

There’s no way he can do any such thing today.

Here’s an even more extreme example. A number of times when I was a teenager, I went inner-tubing with my friends. That sounds fairly innocent, doesn’t it? You’re probably thinking either getting pulled behind a boat or sliding down a hill in winter.

But this was rather different. We’d take truck inner-tubes, along with home-made paddles consisting of long pieces of wood with five-gallon pail lids screwed to each end, and float/paddle down a river along the border of northern Michigan and Wisconsin where I grew up.

Peaceful, right? Much of the time it was. Much of the rest of the time it really, really wasn’t.

I remember one section in particular that easily could have killed me. The strong current slammed me feet-first into a giant rock.

You see, the river we went on included numerous sections of serious rapids. I don’t know anything about the ratings of rapids, so I can’t be precise how dangerous they were. (I just watched a “Manitowoc Minute” video this morning where the inimitable Charlie Berens takes us whitewater rafting with his family not far from where I grew up. Their guide mentions Class 4 rapids, and when Charlie asks him what that means, he says, “Not flat.”) But I can tell you that I’d be hard-pressed today to shoot them in a kayak. I remember one section in particular that easily could have killed me. The strong current slammed me feet-first into a giant rock. If I’d hit it with my head instead (that’s right, no helmet), you wouldn’t be reading this because I wouldn’t have been here to write it. In the event, the tremendous current just popped my tube out from under me, and I instinctively went limp as the rapids rolled me over and over underwater till I hit a calm section a few hundred feet downriver. Fortunately, my tube and paddle came to rest there too. I didn’t even get hurt that time.

I wasn’t so lucky other times.

Mom and Dad never knew where I was when I went on those trips. There’d be a couple of adults with us–one friend’s older brother, and another guy who worked in their family’s business. I don’t think my parents really knew either one.

I just told Mom I was going and went.

Until they’re adults, my boys will never get anywhere close to taking those kind of risks. Their young lives (they’re 15 and 12 now) have been kept far more secure and free from danger than mine was, than any of my brothers’ and sisters’ were. But what are they losing because of it?

When I was growing up, I had freedom from true adult oversight routinely. My sons? Almost never. There’s no doubt I was forced to learn things back then, things I had to learn for myself because there was nobody there to teach me, things they’re not learning now. But more importantly, I had a sense of freedom and adventure they’re missing, and I hate that.

How do I give them at least some of that, despite our lawsuit-and safety-crazed culture? I encourage them to go out and do things on their own–things like riding their bikes around our neighborhood, or over to friends’ houses, without helmets even!

I have them in Scouting (and I’m their Scoutmaster, not to oversee them, but to contribute my own time to that worthy program). They get adventures because of it. They’ve had free rein to explore a cave in Wisconsin, where we even camped underground. They’ve spent all day unsupervised among gigantic dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan. My older son got to stand at the edge of a 200-foot sheer cliff in Kentucky last spring and to jump from a sailboat into 55-degree water way out in the middle of the north end of Lake Huron last summer.

This summer will be particularly challenging, though. All Scouts activities are off until further notice. Many parents, even when the lockdowns end, intend to keep their kids isolated. The boys have spent way too much time indoors and on screens since the schools closed two months ago. So I’ll have them pursue their own independent adventures around our community during the week while I’m at work. And I’ll come up with grander and farther-afield adventures for the whole family on weekends, ones that feature ample liberty for the boys. I think independence and the freedom to take some risks are important for them now.

I know they were for me all those years ago.

I hope we haven’t completely lost that notion as a society. But I sure as heck don’t like what I see.

Jim Vinoski
Jim Vinoskihttp://jim.vinoski.net/
Jim Vinoski thinks he’s a pretty regular guy. Jim grew up in Michigan’s glorious Upper Peninsula. He’s married and has two sons, and now resides in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area. He’s an avid cyclist, runner, and reader. He and his two boys are heavily involved in Scouting, with Jim serving as their Troop’s Scoutmaster. He’s a big WWII history buff and has never gotten over his 1980s fascination with heavy metal music. He has over 30 years of experience in manufacturing, in products ranging from plastics and paints to food and bourbon. (That last one was a heck of a lot of fun.) His focus has been in engineering (he holds a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering), operations, and management. He’s a veteran of such companies as Ralston-Purina and General Mills, and he’s currently responsible for all store-brand manufacturing of dairy and beverage products for a major regional US grocery chain. As a Forbes Contributor, Jim covers all facets of manufacturing. He’s explored everything in his column there from the success stories of numerous American manufacturers to the amazing innovations in our advanced technologies, such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence. Jim also blogs about everything under the sun at The Interface.

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  1. Thank you for your story of the freedoms you experienced as a child-especially in nature -and now the contrast of the challenges of raising your sons amidst all that’s altered. I remember when my children attended pre-school and I went to one of the many wonderful parenting events with fascinating speakers. A woman shared about children in a culture where they rode a makeshift “zip-line” high above the ground-skyscrapers high-to get to school (with no net underneath) through the rainforest. Her encouragement to us parents was to allow our children to take risks. I remember watching my 18 month old son take off his mittens in the snow when it was 20 degrees outside–I stopped myself from saying anything as he plunged his tiny hands into the snow. Within moments he asked for help to get his mittens back on. I knew his body needed to experience the cold of snow. Taking risks and then bumping up against our limits can be where experiences become the best teachers of all. I’m thrilled to know you’ve encourage your children to explore nature. What a challenge to find the balance among calculated risk-taking, comfortable boundaries, and stretching beyond into the uncomfortable zones for what we might imagine is possible.

  2. I hear the need for balance. We’re far more informed of dangers now, some of which are legitimate, some of which for certain are not, but it all traps us in a perpetual worry cycle as parents.

    Part of the value of our childhoods (mine was very similar, albeit spent more in the woods of central Wisconsin and less on the wild rivers up nort’ :) ) is that we learned an adventurousness of spirit, and a level of personal problem solving that translates out of the wilds and into the rest of our lives. That creativity, willingness to try things that we don’t have a “Wiki-How” to follow from start to finish.

    So how do we translate this for our kids, in this world of dangers we perhaps can’t really wrap our heads, hearts and hands around? I think adventurousness and creativity and boldness of spirit can come from many places, and it sounds like you’re actually doing a lot of that already. I certainly have crafted spaces for my kids to explore/break/fix/learn throughout the years, and they’ve come through those experiences with some pretty cool adult-relevant skills as a result.

    I think a HUGE part of this? Just being willing to accept that this is valued in life, and not trying to shape everything into some “Perfect Childhood” (or “perfect life” for that matter) where everything is orderly, and tidy, and safe… and dead.

    Is it messy? FOR realz. Yes. ;) We see that as not only OK, but incredibly valuable.

    Thanks for a bit of a trip down memory lane, too. :) And it sounds like you’re doing amazing stuff for the most incredible of reasons – a fuller experience of the human condition. Kudos!

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