When I dreamed of children, I conjured a wild child. Loud and bright. The kind you could not slow down. That leaps before she looks. That isn't afraid of anything.
Some kids, when you let them loose, take off. They run for the corner of the playground. They run around, just to see their legs work. Sometimes they try to watch their own legs in motion and fall.
My first is terrified of things. Noises, smells. Hand dryers, heights. She is a cautious child. If the tension of a moment, a book, a show, is powerful, she looks away. She cannot look. She cries easily. She draws like it's a second language. Her inner capacity for fantasy must be so great, so wild, that the world she sees looks strange. I don't know how the world looks to her, but I know it scares her. Despite trepidation, she is loud and bright.
Aren't all children? I see my own more clearly now in the mix of kids at school, the kids in our community. When a child grows confident; when a child articulates desire and organizes herself in pursuit – that is wild.
If you look at the children of today, it's easy to assume – they are not nearly wild enough. Post-millennial American children are not that wild, and yet we desperately want them to be. It might be a byproduct of our fear, but we want them to experience a stage of fantasy and freedom in a culture increasingly bounded by money and futures. We want to protect them; we know we'll need their courage.
What is wild is how swiftly the world seems to be moving away. Online, people refer to their children as cubs. Little wolves. Bears. Never puppies or kittens, these wild things. I'm fascinated by these kid-animals on Instagram, the accounts dominated by wildlings – in the woods, unencumbered, explorers all, captured out of doors. They are dressed in knits, in homespun. Throwback children, nimble pioneers. Who are these outliers? They appear to have unbounded time with their children. That alone, a fantasy. They seem immersed in the beauty of trees and sky, no roads for miles. The wildlings make for pretty pictures.
The mundane revelation of reproduction – there is so much time indoors. Naps and feeding alone make for hours by a bed, kitchen, a toilet, a washing machine. Shortly beyond napping life, there is school, then homework, early bedtimes. Most children today grow successfully boxed, in containers we have built for them. We go from house to daycare or school to activities or after care and to the house again. The days are long, yet there's no time for running free. I understand the yearning for freedom. Childhood is rife with boundaries. The parent walks an impossibly narrow line.
When you have your child, wild or not, you apprehend. It's not socially desirable to have a wild one. Wild is bouncing off the walls. Wild doesn't follow directions. Wild is anti-social. Wild is aggressive. Wild is a handful. Wild never stops moving. Wild wears people out.
The contemporary wild bears two extreme strains – the inbounds child and the wildling. The wildling appears to be raised out of doors. They're homeschooled, unschooled, or attending outdoor preschool; they're completing survival training and reading about bravery. They have animal encounters. They're scouts all. In the other strain, these kids are overscheduled, already behind in any endeavor that might lead to the good life. School is for fixing them, somehow. Preparing them for a future we cannot predict. Do not be fooled by the wildlings, which are every bit as documented and prized – overparented – as the inbounds.
Is the wildling reactionary, an anti-capitalist, pro-social fist raised in defiance? The free-range cubs on Instagram, I assume they're wealthy. The families appear to labor but do not seem burdened by work.
In a wintry corner of New York, I'm raising my city kids. We go to a gym down the street where they can jump, run, and climb like wild things. It's a colorful place with ninja lines, a trampoline, ladders, the best of child parkour. Even the most placid kid turns feral. They bounce and swing their way to red cheeks, sweaty hair.
There are places one can live out of doors, and places it's less feasible. My daughter was born in California. There was never a reason not to go outside. We walked, jogged, and hiked to her first birthday. Then we moved to New York, where winter is an atmospheric threat; the radio warns you not to leave the house. There's an argot employed only for weather, from “lake effect" to “persistent snow bands" to “blizzard-like." I wish the terms were more endearing. If Lake Erie freezes over, the snowflakes harden and fall like glitter. Sometimes the snow dumps overnight, in a beautiful quiet. Just as often it falls during the rush hour. The buses run late. Wild is driving with your children in a terrifically persistent snowband. Wild is being absolutely grateful to be home, to have a warm home and no desire to leave.
I've known cold winters: Chicago, Maine, and Germany. Weather isn't scary. One morning, when my child was four, we went to meet the bus at our corner. I may have been under-dressed. We waited minutes past our pickup time. Then we waited longer. Maybe I called, and they kept telling me it was almost there. I was afraid to go back inside; didn't know whether to just pull the car out. My child was properly bundled, but I got dangerously chilled. After that, I understood the fear mongering in each storm forecast.
When it's too cold, they call off school. They don't want kids waiting out for buses that can't get through. The assumption is that city kids don't have warm enough coats, hats, pants, and gloves. These are another kind of wild – children presumed to be on their own in the morning, under-parented, perhaps. Wild is children who are sent home with food on Fridays, enough to get them to Monday. Wild is a school district that feeds all children without charge, because so many qualify for free lunch. For these children, wild is hungry, not free.
Of children – there's precious wild, and real wild. There's what I thought they'd be, and what they are. And then there's everyone's children, who are authentically wild, with or without us. I like to think my own have tamed me, training my heart for a more ferocious love.