Reading Time: 5 minutes

Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness

by Chris Mercogliano


Note the author’s hair and shirt:


Read the subtitle of his book.


Recall high school English:

Children reverting to their natural murderousness
in Golding’s LORD of the FLIES


Recoil in horror.


Send your kids to military school.

Mercogliano is to John MacArthur and Reb Bradley (of the previous post) as a walk in the woods is to a caning. They could hardly be more starkly opposed. He rightly rejects the notion that children are boiling pots in need of a lid, painting a well-supported picture instead of children as dough in need of yeast and room to expand.

I began reading In Defense of Childhood two weeks ago, only to have it snatched away by Becca, who is devouring it and feeding me selected, pre-chewed bits. The book is essentially a howl of protest against the current regime of one-test-fits-all education and the use of drugs and regimentation to beat what Mercogliano calls the “inner wildness” out of children.

Hes quick to counter what that phrase brings to many minds. He is not advocating chaos. He is, however, advocating a wider definition of what is acceptable and even what is good in our children’s emotional and intellectual explorations. And he backs it all up not with the hunches and personal preferences so many parenting authors use, but with sound research in the social and behavioral sciences. (I’ll post about some recent research shortly.)

One of his most heartfelt pleas is for parents to create some unstructured space and time around our kids — to limit, among other things, the two things that most constrict our kids’ freedom to explore the world and their own minds: electronic screens and organized activities.

Both of those things can be greatly beneficial to kids in reasonable doses, of course. But I agree with Mercogliano that we’ve tended in the direction of overdose in recent years. I have friends who carry their family schedule like a proud cross, noting that their daughter goes straight to piano lessons after school, then straight to swimming, then dinner, homework, and bed, with soccer and gymnastics on the weekend.

One such friend recently called on a Saturday afternoon to ask a favor. “What do you guys have going today?” she asked.

“Just hanging out,” Becca said.

“HA! Oh my gosh, you must be kidding.” She then rattled off the mind-juddering structure for her family’s day, with more than a hint of martyred pride.

Our kids do participate in group activities, and get a lot out of them, but we’re keen on protecting their unstructured, self-guided time as well. A few days ago, with Mercogliano on my mind, I decided to watch how Delaney (6) spent the five hours between getting home from school and bedtime. Here’s a very rough sketch:


Rode her bike.

I went outside to find yellow nylon ropes tied from the mailbox to a tree in the front yard, then up to the porch railing. I have no idea what they were for, but she loves to create worlds in her head and act them out.

Found Delaney on the couch in the basement, reading aloud to her dolls.

Laney played “Purble Place” on the computer.

Laney walked dog around the house on 16-foot leash. Several priceless Ming vases smashed to ruins.

Dinner (Mongolian beef and fried rice). Talked about the circus we saw on Monday and our planned trip to the beach in June. Laney told about a post-President’s Day exercise in her class. Each kid said what s/he would do as President. Laney said she would fix global warming and help ducks get through the ice on lakes to find their food. (Damned liberal! Say no to the duckish welfare state.)

I heard the sound of the Macarena coming from the living room. I didn’t even know we owned a recording of the Macarena. Laney had taped a string across a wide doorway and was doing the limbo to the music. We all joined her. As with all things requiring physical skill, I suck at limbo. Down came the string on my chin, and they laughed at me. So I put it up again and stepped over it. Who’s laughing now??

She played Candyland with Erin and Mom.

She read Oh, The Places You’ll Go! aloud to Mom.

Bedtime. Sang So Happy Together by the Turtles. What an unbeatable song.

The ability of my kids to play creatively and independently has come to pass mostly in spite of me, not because of me. I have many shortcomings as a dad, but Mercogliano and his trusty sidekick, Becca, have finally mostly cured me of one in particular, one that I’ve been fighting for years. When my kids climb a tree, I tend to yell, “Be careful!” When they climb the monkey bars, I tend to stand beneath them like a mother hen. When they start running up the sidewalk toward the park, I almost ALWAYS yell, “Don’t trip!” Stupid! Stupid! I am convinced that I do more harm to their inner wildness, sense of exploration, and personal confidence with all my clucking than any harm a skinned knee could ever do. I was kidding about the Ming vases, but there was a time when I would either (1) follow Laney around, fussing and fretting about damage both actual and possible, or (2) simply ask her not to walk the dog in the house. There was also a time when I would have tsked about tape on the woodwork and taken down her limbo string. Not kidding! I can be a complete idiot.

I’m getting better. She broke nothing, and the tape came off the woodwork just fine. And even when there is a broken glass or spilled juice or skinned knee, I’ve begun to accept it as a very small price to pay for the acres of freedom all around that little casualty. Laney had a great day, in part because it was hers to create and run around in. And because we try our best not to overhover or overschedule, she knows how. As she gets older, she’ll lose some of that freedom to homework and organized activities. But if we can get her hooked on unstructured, self-guided play now, she’s likely to jealously protect whatever free minutes she can to be a wild thing at every age.


A post by Judith Warner about the overscheduling issue
The Social Policy Report study to which she refers, which claims the syndrome is a myth
The Over-Scheduled Child by Alvin Rosenfeld, MD

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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