This blog was originally published as an article in our journal, November 1, 1992.
We often enjoy annual trips to the White Mountains in October. One trip took place a bit after the glorious colors of Fall were at the height of their beauty. The weather was bad. It was raining most of the time and clouds and mists shrouded the mountains hiding their vistas. Still, the forest wasn’t gloomy. The ground was laced with the brightly colored fallen oak and maple leaves. Many trees which I never noticed when the reds predominated sparkled as if they were enameled by the rain drops with many shades of yellow and green. It was lovely and it was wet. The students were all teenagers, some old timers and some new. In spite of the cold and disappointing weather nobody was cranky, nobody complained.
Over the years I have learned that it is O.K. for kids to swim in the cold river when the ambient temperature is around forty degrees. I learned that kids can walk around with wet hair without contracting pneumonia or other dread diseases, while I am dressed in many layers of wool and down. I learned that they know how to take care of themselves without my watching them too closely.
It was a mellow and harmonious outing which ended for me on a “high” when I scanned our campsite for litter and found none. The students had picked up every scrap without prompting by the staff.
By contrast, the hike to Nobscot Mountain in Framingham was blessed with perfect weather. Twenty-three children all under the age of nine and many only four or five came along with Barbara, Denise and me. I worried that the youngest ones would be anxious on their first outing away from school. I wondered whether they would have the stamina to walk all the way up, each having to carry their sweaters and lunches. Happily, they all made it to the top. The view was superb. The hills underneath us were still colored in Fall reds all the way to the horizon where we could clearly see Boston’s skyscrapers, the Prudential and the Hancock buildings. Everyone loved it. We ate our lunches and lounged in the warm sun. After a while the children started to explore and before long they discovered a wall of rocks which presented them with a fine challenge to climb, and presented me with something to fret about. In fact, seven year old D., who brought me over to show me how he can scale this wall, told me with twinkling eyes that his mother “would die” if she saw him do it. I nearly died too, but I couldn’t allow myself to show my apprehension. I was torn between opposing responsibilities: physical safety versus respecting the children’s spirit of adventure and strengthening them by showing them that I have trust in their judgement. I decided to wait and see before interfering and so I stood there and watched them. I saw them figure out the best ways to get to the top, and take their time to assess the situation and plan their assault. They taught and encouraged each other and most of them made it. Some, however, were too small or not agile enough and they quietly retreated to the base of the rock. Two, in fact, had to be rescued by me like the proverbial kitten rescued by firemen.
Even though I was impressed by how careful and sensible the kids were I was relieved when Barbara called to tell us it was time to leave. And then a new student aged four decided that it was her turn to scale the ten foot rock. My patience was all used up and I told her that she was too small to do it. She knew that it was so but she was furious with me for saying it to her. She told me firmly that she should be allowed to try and decide for herself what she can and can’t do. It was tough for me to prevent her from doing it but it was getting late and I thought it might be dangerous. She was angry with me for a while until I found a way to let her know that I basically agreed with her. It would have been better if I had taken the time and had let her see for herself that her legs were too small to reach the first foothold. It was clearly a situation that arises in many interactions between children and adults: I have to allow them to take the risks that they think they can handle and they have to accept that there are times when they have to yield to our experience.
I was glad to be back at school with all twenty-three children safe and happy. Being a grown-up isn’t as easy as it seems.