Limitations in a limitless world

There are no fences in our world. In many ways, this is how we live our lives: dreaming and doing out of bounds, beyond the status quo. Our home is ensconced in old growth forest. The Cuyahoga Valley NatiFAMILY_KingofNatureonal Park is our front yard; the Brecksville Metroparks extends to the back. For us, this means peace, quiet, and natural beauty. For our children, no fences mean endless adventures.

Within a few weeks of moving to the farm, after a handful of exploratory hikes, my son claimed as his territory the ravine behind our house. “I’m King of the Nature,” he declared. And so he was.

As adults, we appreciate nature for the tranquility it brings to our chaotic days. Our children, however, see freedom, a place where they can live out dreams of independence away from the rules of home and classroom. Our King ruled his world after school, lying on his back alongside the marsh, watching wind-worn treetops wave back “hi” from the sky above. I spied on him once or twice, eavesdropping on his murmurs to the wilderness, never quite close enough to make out the conversation.

As fall fell into winter, I expected him to give in to the discomfort of December temperatures. “But I’m warm blooded, mom,” he told me, his baby fat an extra layer of protection against the chill. Like a little seal, I thought.

Each day, he would drop down into the ravine, sledding swiftly on snow pants, dodging branches and brambles along the way. I enjoyed watching him from my perch in the kitchen, gazing through a wall-size window on the action outside. It made a nice perspective, perfect for dish-duty daydreaming. My own adventures in nature were more domestically inspired. Once, after pulling a forgotten, smoking casserole from the oven, I thought I’d grab a climbing rope from the garage, tie off to the tire swing, and rappel down to the other side of the earth for Chinese takeout.

The Nature Kingdom had one rule: Never leave sight of the house. Why would he want to anyway? we thought. There were plenty of sled rides, fort-building branches, and slingshot rocks to be found within five hundred feet of home. Of course, we should have marked a bolder perimeter. Assumptions and sight lines were no match for a seven-year-old imagination. As his confidence and familiarity grew, so did his boundaries. His forest explorations were a royal secret; until the day he came home one boot short.

TFK_TheEdgeOfTheEarth_0120This mishap was managed by my teenage sitter, who was quite qualified to oversee two busy children in the safety of a fine suburban home — but perhaps not in the hinterlands of the Nature Kingdom. She needed more training in the perils of the great outdoors. “He was outside in his ravine,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. He must have gotten it stuck in the snow on his way up.” Follow-up interrogations with my boy yielded similarly sheepish answers.

We sent out a search party for the boot the following day. After all, a King could not properly rule without warm and waterproof feet. Trudging through his territory in muddy, mucky, inappropriate farm boots, his Highness had a confession. “It sunk in the swimming hole.” Wait. What? Where?!

A sucked-in breath of frosty air clattered through my system like falling icicles as I processed: My child was playing alone in the woods, a quarter-mile away from home, on thin ice over frigid water that could easily have pulled him to an early death. Our family swimming hole was only a five-minute creek walk away to the northwest — he could navigate his way there and back, but our sitter would never have heard any cries for help had Mother Nature decided to keep him.

Lucky for us, She had other plans that day. There was our humbled King, standing still, eyes lowered, anticipating that his quiet admission would cost him his kingdom. And it did, for a while.

What should a mom do? I didn’t entirely believe that he would — or even could — comprehend the gravity of his poor decisions. He had tasted freedom; a stern lecture wouldn’t be enough to kill the craving. Having not yet found a credible resource on parenting in a National Park, I considered googling American Indian parenting techniques. Ben had his own ideas.

By now, the swimming hole had warmed, the top sheet melted into oversized ice cubes — or mini glaciers, depending on how you looked at it. “I’m taking him down there for a dunk,” Ben said. Um, no.

But he didn’t let up. “Seriously. He needs to understand how painful the consequences can be.” Ben was persistent — he’s a man who learns through his mistakes. When our son fell — or, rather, got his foot stuck — he didn’t land far from the paternal tree — much like his dad, he can’t be contained. He would need to feel the weight of his choices first-hand to recognize how grave the consequences could be.

We slept on the decision and, ultimately, I agreed. With stipulations. There would be rigid rules and renewed promises. There would be a fire nearby to warm bare skin. There would be a brief dunk — to punctuate a point — not a leisurely soak.

My King was brave as he pulled on his puffy jacket and trudged out the door with Dad for what he knew would be one of life’s more uncomfortable moments. This was not one I wanted to share, so I stayed back, awaiting a full report through chattering teeth.

After it all, as Ben changed out of his winter layers, he told me how the King stripped down to his skivvies in the snow, then tiptoed waist deep into the frigid water. He stood wide-eyed and paralyzed while answering three, simple questions:

Dad: Do you ever go outside your perimeter without a partner or parent?
King: NO SIR!
Dad: Do you ever go on ice without a partner or parent?
King: NO SIR!
Dad: Do you think you can lift this ice if you were floating underneath it?
King: No… (body shaking, tears streaming) … Ssssssir.
Dad: OK. Let’s go.

When they returned, all the boy could muster was, “Whoa, Mom, that was cold,” as he raced past me into the bathroom for a hot shower — the King of the Nature, seeking solace back home. That night, we read a story about a superhero. “With great power comes great responsibility,” I read, and paused. “Isn’t that true, King?” I asked. He thought about it for a moment. “Yes, Mom,” he whispered, and snuggled close.