I think all parents have some guiding philosophies that influence their parenting. For some it’s religious conviction; for others it’s an emphasis on compassion or care for the environment. I have several, but I’m beginning to think that my main goal for my kids’ early years is to experience nature. I’m realizing how foundational nature was in my own childhood and I want to pass that on to my kids.
I grew up in Cape Hatteras, NC, a Carolina sea island (as Pat Conroy would say) that was historically a haven for pirates and now is a mellow fishing village that depends on tourism to survive. My father is a commercial fisherman and has spent the past 40 years learning everything there is to know about the waters around Hatteras Island. Because of my father’s occupation, my childhood was intimately connected to the whims of Mother Nature. Tides and wind direction formed the bulk of conversation around my house, as well as what fish were running and where they might be found. I was connected to the earth on a far more intimate level than kids growing up in the suburbs. Every year hurricanes would blow through and every year we would pray for the homes of our village to be spared. The average suburban kid doesn’t worry whether his house is built to withstand gale force winds. When the wind blew out of the northeast, the power would often go out in my house. My brother and I would play cards or work a puzzle with the light of a hurricane lamp. School would often be cancelled because of ocean tide washing over the one main road on the island. Our daily lives were affected by nature in a way that those of my own children are not.
Growing up on an island also gave me access to a magnificent array of natural wonders. My parents live on a salt creek that empties into the sound, and the ocean is a five minute walk from their house. I played outside every single day, in all temperatures and forms of precipitation. I rode my bike all over the village, waded in the creek, explored the salt marsh, watched my dad unload fish at the dock, rode ponies that were the descendants of colonial Spanish horses, played in tide pools and took long walks on the beach. I knew the names of birds, fish, snakes, shells and plants, not because I was particularly interested in them, but because everyone knew them. They were part of my landscape the way Target and Best Buy are part of my children’s.
I cannot express how grateful I am for my childhood. I was grounded in real things, like phases of the moon and the direction of the wind, instead of bombarded with commercial culture the way many kids are. I am deeply saddened that my own children will miss growing up on the island. Because I feel that they are missing out on something I had, I make every effort to get my kids outside. I don’t just mean on a playground or in a planned and landscaped city park; I mean the shores of a lake or a spot far back in the woods where the sounds of cars and people fade to nothing and are replaced by birds and breeze. It is easier to head to the pool, but it’s vitally important for me to get my kids to the lake. I believe that kids NEED raw nature, that it’s good for the soul as well as the body. When asked someday about their childhood, I would like the first thing to come out of my kids’ mouths to be, “Well, we spent a lot of time outside.”