It was like walking into a scene from “Lord of the Flies.” Children ran everywhere. One issued a primal yell and ran toward me, full speed, adorned with a warpaint of mud smeared across his face. I braced myself for impact as I’ve learned to do when I see him coming, readying myself for the half-hug, half-tackle with my son greets me with.
The possibility that he might transform into some wild, feral state while at camp had crossed my mind. Before me stood a scraggly, filthy boy, the likes of which would make any wolf mama proud of her surrogate human. As a human mama, well, he made me proud, too.
Other children did not appear to have fallen as deeply into character. In their southern Johnson County outdoor wear, made up heavily of Keen footwear and Under Armour quick-drying shirts, other boys appeared to still be safely grounded in civilization. But my son’s eyes had a wild glint, and I watched, wondering if he would crouch, then lope along using his knuckles like a chimpanzee.
“There’s a vine we can use to swing into the lake,” he excitedly told me. We were given the all-clear to explore camp, and he dragged me through a field, up a hill, to a tiny lake, nestled in the woods. He very loudly expressed disappointment that it was gone. “It was right here!” he yelped.
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Another family arrived, outfitted in official looking camping gear, their sons appearing quite fresh-faced without mud warpaint. Perhaps their boys had not yet earned their warrior status.
“I’ll show you,” my son announced. This was the only warning he gave before running, full speed down the bank, then cannonballing into the lake. He emerged from the water, mud now pooling around his eyes, and declared, “It’s better with the vine!”
“Wolves,” I muttered to the other parents. “He’s been raised by wolves.”
I tried to strike a balance between the nonchalance of a cool mom — one who had it all covered and knew with full certainty that this was how any boy should behave — blended with enough surprise that they would know that he did not always behave like this. Only under certain, very specific circumstances did he cannonba... — SPLASH, he did it again.
We continued to romp through the camp, he hollering jolly remarks to his fellow campers, anxious to introduce me to his favorite snakes from the camp’s collection and positively giddy to show me how bravely he could scale a 15-foot cliff, then slide down the wet mud into the creek below, from which he plucked a crawdad — that I refused to hold.
My kids don’t get much of a chance to be wild. When I was a kid, romps through the woods didn’t seem so scarce. We’d never heard of Lyme disease or West Nile virus, and my bottle of coconut suntan lotion contained zero protection from the sun. Today’s parents send bottles of chemicals and highly engineered technical gear to experience the basics of being a kid. We’re not wrong to do so, nor are we smarter than previous generations.
We forget to tell our kids that it’s OK to be loud, it’s fun to be dirty and the world can be our play area — wild critters are our friends.
Every day, for three weeks, my boy came home filthy, exhausted, sometimes itchy, occasionally scraped and bleeding. Every morning, he rolled out of bed early, packed his gear and waited for his ride.
It seems so hard to find ways to allow our kids to be wild, but so worth the while.
Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes alternate weeks.