My daughter and I were watching old home movies last night. She is 30 years old and had never seen the videos we made when she was a baby.
We were enjoying seeing our old house, watching her brother carry her around like a baby doll, seeing her first efforts at crawling. Then, the scene changed to a crawling 9 month old outside on a cool spring day.
Dressed in an adorable sweater and a cute pink hat with pom-poms on it, she was sitting on the ground next to the sand box. Her blue eyes dominated her elfin face and she looked happy.
She reached over into the sandbox and started digging around in the sand. She grasped a fistful of it and brought it to her mouth, succeeding at shoving a good bit of it in. She seemed nonplussed but she didn’t attempt to spit it out.
We laughed at this, but the film kept rolling. The mother behind the camera seemed unfazed. She didn’t make any effort to stop filming and scrape the sand out of her baby’s mouth. She didn’t shout “No No!” She just kept the film rolling and observed as her baby crawled into the sandbox and continued her exploration.
My daughter thought this was hilarious, but I was mortified. I was shouting at that mother saying “What are you thinking?” as she continued to film her baby eating several more handfuls of sand. My mother and daughter were laughing so hard they were crying, but I was threatening to erase the video.
I was dumbfounded that I could have been so cavalier about my baby eating sand. My daughter asked how often I had to buy new sand since she was eating all of it. I laughed, but thought, “I must have been crazy!”
But as I thought more about this, I realized what was happening. I was being the mother I had set out to be — the one that was determined to allow her children to explore the natural world without fear. I wanted my children to have a strong connection to nature, encouraging their curiosity and exploration with very little limitations. I did not want them to think that nature was scary or bad in any way.
I am still unsure how I could have been so calm about her shoving fistfuls of sand in her mouth, but when I look at what an incredible human being she turned out to be, I am comforted that it didn’t seem to hurt her.
When my son was little, he collected rollie pollies, little gray bugs with armored plates that allow them to roll into tiny balls as a defense mechanism. His pockets were always full of them and I learned pretty quickly to check his pockets before I put his clothes in the wash. A washing machine full of rollie pollies is not fun.
When we bought a 30 acre hobby farm, our children had the freedom to roam woods and creeks and ponds. They collected frogs and worms and snails and we set up a habitat in an old terrarium so they could carefully observe the creatures we shared the farm with.
My youngest daughter regularly brought frogs into the house to show me and when she would open her hand they would leap to freedom. We always had a frog or two living in the house, which was really fun in the spring when she would bring a spring peeper in. Those tiny little suckers are LOUD. They would keep us awake at night. We lived with nature in the truest sense of the word.
When I see mothers today who are unwilling to allow their children to get dirty and explore their world, I am sad for their kids. When parents scream “No!” from their own fear, they prevent their children from developing a healthy relationship with the world around them.
Humans have an intrinsic need to be connected to nature, as we co-evolved with the plants and animals we share the planet with, and until recently in history, depended directly on the natural world for our survival. This need is largely being ignored as we have adopted lifestyles that keep us separate from nature.
I was delighted to see how our oldest granddaughter is allowed to explore without restrictions — scooping up mulch from the flower beds to deposit into the waiting hands of the adults around her. She gathers sticks, leaves, dirt and anything else that looks interesting to her. Her curiosity is enormous and her parents, who have a strong connection to nature themselves, are allowing her to create her own connection.
There are a lot of things I would do differently if I were parenting my children now. But I know that I would not change the way I allowed them to discover the world for themselves, getting dirty, enduring scrapes and scratches and even eating gobs of sand.
Giving my children the message that the natural world is a place of wonder and a source of joy enabled them to create a relationship with the world that sustains them and nurtures them today, as adults. That is one of the things I did right.