Summer Reading: “The Wilderness of Childhood”


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I’m fairly new to this whole adventure parenting thing, but I’m lucky to have some great role models. Number one was my dad, who raised my older sister and me to be curious about the wider world around us. A photographer and editor at National Geographic for most of his professional life, Dad wasn’t as much an athlete as an inveterate wanderer and explorer. This was the mid-70s, before the cult of extreme was born and “adventure” became an adjective, and Dad wasn’t in it for the adrenaline rush or bragging rights, but good old fresh-air and inspiration. 

Our backyard playground was the not-so-rad hills and creeks of the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. Dad took us camping in his musty, mustard-yellow canvas army tent on the Delaware River, road-tripping to Maine each summer in his green VW microbus, and amateur spelunking in ticky-tacky Luray Caverns near his farm in Virginia. His idea of entertainment was long rambling walks through the woods foraging for pine cones and pebbles, which we’d glue onto giant poster boards and make “nature art.” When we got older, the three of us went bike-touring on Prince Edward Island, land of constant head-winds, and kayaking on the Connecticut River, where at the end of each day we’d drag our boats from the water, bushwhack out to some road, and thumb a ride to the nearest B&B. (My sister had put the kibosh on camping.) 

When my first daughter was born and we began trying to navigate the new territory of newborns without turning into shut-ins, Dad became our sounding board and #1 fan. He thought it both entirely normal and positively thrilling that we would put the baby in a lifejacket and stick her in a canoe so we could paddle around the island or put her on skis shortly after she learned to walk or lug her up this or that mountain. Knowing he approved made the adventure of parenting easier, and his philosophy of exploring for the sake of exploring—to see the world and ourselves in new ways, and what the heck, bring the kid!—became the foundation of my own made-up notion of adventure parenting. You don’t have to get all epic about it. Even a bike ride around town will do the trick. 

Dad was a big believer in old fashioned things like writing long letters and inscribing books and—so retro!—clipping articles from newspapers and actually putting them in the mail. A couple of years ago, he sent me an essay from The New York Review of Books that neatly and amazingly summed up everything he thought about raising outdoor kids and introduced me to another role model, Berkeley-based writer Michael Chabon. In his essay, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” (excerpted from his book Manhood for Amateurs) Chabon eloquently explains why it is we should keeping Getting Out There with our kids, why it’s more important now than ever, and what we stand to lose if we don’t.   

Dad mailed the story affixed with a Post-It note that said something simple and exclamatory like “Read this!” or “Great!!!” We’d talked so much this that he didn’t need to say more—I knew. Since then, it’s become one of my all-time favorite parenting manifestoes, the perfect quick refresher whenever I feel like I’m losing my nerve or getting lazy. My father died six months ago and now that he’s gone, this story's like a direct conduit to Dad, almost the next best thing to his voice in my ear. 

—Katie Arnold

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