The children are walking in the creek and the water is up to their chests. I haven’t seen them for at least five hours. The eldest, who is ten years old, is wearing a backpack that is partially submerged. They are sunburnt and their faces are dirty. They could have drowned or been bitten by one of the many tiger snakes that live along the creek. But, just like last week, they’re not dead. Instead, they’re ambling up the path, soaked, smiling, faces full of color.
Moving to the country in 2016 for a year of un-schooling, I made a commitment to let my sons, eight and nine years old, be as adventurous as they wanted to be. That is, to trust their survival instincts, and trust that they’d be responsible. On a day-to-day basis this meant that I couldn’t be incapacitated by worries about electric fences, boisterous bulls, black snakes, tiger snakes, copperheads, water holes, or simply getting lost. Even after twelve months of them turning up alive and uninjured, again and again, I had to coach myself a little to not worry when I hadn’t seen them for two or three hours.
Not long before we returned to the city my sons and their young cousins got it into their heads to go and explore the abandoned farm house, high on a hill, about 2km away. Beyond a few words of “be careful” and “look after the little ones”, no more was said. I wouldn't be surprised if we were breaking some law or other in letting them roam.
They packed snacks and set off walking down the road at mid-morning. There were five of them, ranging from five to eleven years old. We’d never been to the abandoned farmhouse. We didn’t know what they’d find. But like any parents, we could well imagine: broken windows, dead animals, chemicals, collapsing roof, serial killer.
The two older boys returned about lunchtime, reported that the others were fine, and that although the door had been locked, they’d successfully broken in through a window. By three in the afternoon we’d heard nothing of the two little girls and my nine-year-old son.
For whatever reason I got a little more concerned than usual on that particular afternoon. Somehow an abandoned house seemed like more of an unknown than kilometers of unruly pasture and bush. So I jumped in the car and drove up the road. It was raining heavily. As I approached the abandoned house, I came upon the three little adventurers sitting in their oversized straw hats. They were drenched in a field of sheep, eating some of the snacks they’d packed and chatting delightedly. When they greeted me, I lied and said I was just driving up the hill to make a phone call. I didn’t want to undermine their sense of my trust in them. I felt I ought to manage my anxieties and not inflict them on these children. If they felt safe exploring the valley, I wasn’t about to instil fear in them.
* * *
Now that we’ve returned to the city I feel a great pride and joy reflecting on the year we spent living with nature in our rustic Mongolian yurts and caravan. How many children get to grow up adventuring in the bush day after day for a year? It was a year in which they were free to follow their own curiosity and discover their own tastes, talents and fears; a year in which they were able to gather endless stories of adventures, including all kinds of encounters with real animals and imaginary monsters. And yes, I do often feel some small sense of…we got away with it!
We've been back in inner-city Melbourne for over a year now. We’re now back in the land of schools, parks, signs and traffic lights, and I find myself looking for places where we can take risks. But everything is wrapped up, padded, fenced off, and regulated. Everywhere I turn there are signs warning me of danger. I encourage my boys to explore the neighbourhood on their own. Statistically speaking, children more likely to be hurt at home than out on the streets or down at the park. Quick boys, leave the house, it’s safer out there!
I do wonder what I’d have done if they’d been injured or killed during our year in the woods. What if they'd been bitten by a snake, or drowned in a dam? How could I then justify my decisions to let them roam? How can anything stack up against the risk of serious injury or death? But they didn’t die, and they weren’t injured. They thrived.
You can count the broken arms, the scares and other mishaps, but how do you quantify a zest for life? How do you quantify a deep sense of viability? How do you quantify growing up knowing that the world is essentially a safe and wondrous place to be explored at will?
I’m convinced that through our lack of courage we are undermining our children. In 21st century Australia, safety overrules everything. No running, no touching, no climbing. There it is, we’re all safe, and now we can slowly die on the inside.
I fear that if we cannot stand up to the tyranny of safety, we run the risk of condemning our children to that most awful fate - an unfulfilling life. At what point do other values trump the value of safety? Put more simply, when does safety become a danger?