Free-Range Boys

Free-Range Boys

Over the past two summers, our boys have been at an age where all three of them were mobile and active and had a lot of energy to burn on those long summer days. Even the youngest one at age two was ripping around the yard on a balance bike or climbing up into the “fort” at the top of our reclaimed swing set in an effort to keep up with his older brothers. Since Joe and I are trying our best to be good little homesteaders, our summer days are very busy with taking care of the animals, tending to the garden, preparing fresh food, putting up food for the winter, and everything else that comes along with running a household. In the interest of letting the kids get out their energy while we still have a chance at getting something done, we decided to institute the “free-range” policy for our children. Maybe you’ve heard of free-range chickens or guinea hens? This allows the birds to get some exercise and have access to fresh greens and bugs all day long. Why not for boys? They need fresh greens and bugs too, right? Just kidding, sort of 🙂 Now, please don’t judge. Or, at least, before you do, sit down and ask your grandparents or great-grandparents what their children did on those long summer days when they were growing up? And the simple reality is that you can’t be with all three of them at all times. So when one of the boys says to me, “Can I play outside?”, my response is usually, “Sure!”


The end result is usually some ridiculously dirty clothes (or naked boys and missing clothes), a lot of messes to clean up around the yard and the house, equal parts yelling at each other and working together as a team, a few narrow misses where we almost went to the ER, and some of the most creative ideas that the boys have ever come up with – for better or for worse. I love to peek out of the windows when they think I am not watching and see what they are up to. It is easy to imagine them all grown up as a team of engineers working together on a construction project, or an environmental research team out on an expedition to collect nature samples, or a group of scientists conducting an experiment. Here are some examples of what these crazy boys have come up with during their adventures together:


  • After harvesting ripe, round tomatoes from the garden, bringing them inside and creating a game of “tomato bowling” across the new wooden floors. They liked the way that the tomatoes went “splat” at the end of their quick trip across the room.


  • Borrowing Daddy’s bungee cords from the garage tool bench (you know, the ones that you would use to secure something in the bed of a truck or on top of the car roof, perhaps?) and stringing them up from a tree branch above the wood pile and attempting to go bungee jumping off the top of the wobbly pile of rotting logs. (Luckily, I intercepted this extreme sport adventure before anyone actually became airborne. And it’s a good thing because the tree branch they had selected wasn’t big enough to hold the weight of a squirrel, let alone a small child! However, I must give them some credit because they were all wearing bike helmets…safety first!)


  • Digging a hole together and filling it with water from the garden hose to see what would happen. When the dirt inevitably turned to mud, they called it “mud soup” and proceeded to add other ingredients, such as sand, leaves, and grass, to see what would happen next. In the end, they decided that they had created a “mucky mess” and this is still one of their favorite games to play outside. And why not? One mucky mess is never the same as the last one! My favorite part of this operation was how they worked together to decide what to do next and everyone had a role to play in the creation of their recipe.


  • Finding bits of unused rope around the property and tying them together and then somehow stringing it up and around the swing set to fashion their very own homemade rope swing. Along these same lines, I have to say that I don’t remember spending much time teaching either of the older two boys how to tie a knot. They learned it out of necessity while working on projects such as this one where they didn’t want Mom and Dad to know what was happening so they couldn’t ask us for help. It’s amazing what they can do when they know that no one else is going to help them figure it out!


  • Eating a pokeweed berry. Yikes! That was a scary one. One cool thing about having so many edible plants on our property is that the boys can harvest their own food while playing outside without bothering us about “what can I eat?” or “when is it going to be snack time?” or “I’m so hungry!” Mostly, this means various berries, herbs, veggies from the garden, and handfuls of mint or basil to freshen their breath and flavor their drinks of water. But one day, our youngest, who was two at the time, saw clumps of ripe, round, bluish-purple berries growing on a bush right next to the chicken coop and decided to try them out. As far as we can tell, he only had one or two of them before coming inside and complaining about his belly hurting. Thank goodness! And then he was able to take me out and show me where he got the berry and I quickly used the wonderful internet to google my way to an identification of the berry and a decision about whether or not he needed emergency treatment. Luckily, you would need to ingest a much larger quantity before it becomes dangerous but the pokeweed berry is indeed toxic to humans. So this year we were able to cut down all of the purplish-green stalks of the pokeweed bush as soon as they started to appear. And every time we see a pokeweed bush on the edge of a trail or elsewhere in nature, the boys are quick to point out “that’s the poisonous one that Matt ate and got sick!” Lesson learned, I hope!


  • Setting up a “worm farming” operation. This involved, among other things, setting up a pulley system with a rope and a 5-gallon bucket. Our 7-yr old, Ben, would stand up in the fort at the top of the swing set and let down the bucket for the other two boys to fill with worms that they had dug up and extracted from the dirt around the swing set. Ben would then add the worms to another bucket up in the fort that was already filled with dirt. Then he would send the empty bucket back down to be filled up again.  The boys keep reminding us that they are ready to go fishing whenever we are ready to take them!


  • Opening a farm stand at their grandparents’ house in town. The boys harvested, cleaned, and bagged kale from the garden. Then they created signs to advertise their farm stand and the prices of the different sizes of bags of kale that they were selling. In the end, I think the older two boys made about $10 from kale sales and our youngest made another $10 in sales of homemade cookies. Who doesn’t love a cookie and a bag of fresh kale on a summer morning?


Homegrown and Homemade Farm Stand



As you can see, when left to their own devices, the boys can be both a creative and dangerous team. My hope is that all of this unstructured and partially unsupervised play time in nature will allow them to explore new ideas, learn things that I cannot teach them and they will not learn in a book, and form a bond between brothers that can never be broken.


(I wish that I had more pictures to share of these magical moments but I am still learning to take a deep breath (and grab the camera!) when I come upon these brotherly creations instead of shouting something that I will later regret!)

Dropping the ball…Ben’s haircut

Lest our posts give the impression that nothing ever goes wrong around in our house, here is one of my more humbling stories from a recent weekend that I spent with the boys that ended in anguish, misery, and some parenting lessons re-learned.

Over the weekend, Maria went out to visit her family for her cousin’s wedding.  As the wedding invite list was restricted to adults, and no babysitter in their right mind was willing to take our brood for multiple days, I hung home with the kids for an “all-boy” weekend.  It was a great time, except for the last 30 minutes.

We spent most of Friday snowed in after 20″ of the white stuff dropped on us the day before, playing some games together and watching Lion King for the 20th time while I called into some meetings and cleared off the deck.  Saturday we spent the most notable part of the day over at the neighbor’s house for their daughter’s 4th birthday party, which was awesome, letting them get tons of energy out with their friends, eat multiple pieces of cake (a “secret” treat that they couldn’t keep a lid on for more than a couple hours before I got ratted out ;-)), all while I got to have a beer or two over a really nice home cooked lunch with friends.  After a few hours there, we packed the three boys into the double stroller and hiked it back home through the lightly falling snow…a truly touching moment in nature.  On Sunday, the boys got to watch Lion King for the 21st time while I cleared the driveway from the additional 4″ that fell overnight so Maria could make it back into the house with the little Civic.  The rest of the afternoon was spent fighting entropy to get the house back in order in anticipation of Mommy getting home.

About 30 minutes before Maria pulled in, I was finally ready to kick back and claim success over the weekend.  The house was clean, dinner was all cooked and ready to be plated, and the kids were playing quietly in the playroom (should have been my first clue that something was amiss).  With everything in order, I decided to spend my last half hour relaxing with the boys, building legos or whatever they were into.  I walked into the playroom to find Ben excitedly showing me his bucket of “clippings”.  I recalled him getting out some construction paper and the safety scissors a few minutes before with the intent of making Mommy a card, which he often does…such a thoughtful boy…but when I looked at his bucket, I saw a bit more than just construction paper clippings.  There was also a bunch of what looked like fibers.  My mind started racing through the potential sources of this foreign matter…the rug?  No, not shaggy enough.  A stuffed animal?  No, not the right color.  I was about to ask Ben what in the world it was when I looked up and realized those unidentified fibers were indeed his hair.  &#%@#&$!!!!!

Without thinking, I flew into a tirade that must have been terrifying to those poor boys.  Under intense interrogation (just short of water-boarding, I think), I learned that not only had Ben cut his own hair, but he also got a couple of Matt’s curly locks, and that Jake had also followed his lead but only had time to take one tentative snip of his own hair before I came in.  Through crying eyes, Ben tried to explain that he just wanted to show me his “cool new invention”.  In retrospect, that innocent explanation should have cooled my jets, but I continued to fume.  I sat him down in the bathroom, broke out the clippers and set out to try to fix the mess…a futile affair which only served to frustrate me further.  At this point, Ben is crying because he doesn’t want a shaved head, and the other two boys are curled up on the sofa to avoid the screaming Tasmanian Devil that I had devolved into.  It is into this chaos that Maria arrived home from her weekend away.  “Welcome home honey!”  From the look on her face, I could tell that she was more than a little shocked at the scene, but was able to quickly defuse the situation and get everyone calmed down.

Which is worse...Ben's try at a haircut or Dad's attempt at a repair job?  You be the judge!

Which is worse…Ben’s try at a haircut or Dad’s attempt at a repair job? You be the judge!

In retrospect, I handled the situation miserably.  After all it is just hair, it will grow back, and thankfully no one got physically hurt. At 5 years old, none of Ben’s friends would be likely to even notice or care that he had a huge swath carved out of his parted hair.  It is only now in thinking back on it that I realize why I was so upset…because I had failed.   I had to explain why, under my watch, the kids had enough time to perform such masterful barbering on themselves (that probably happened in less than 2 minutes, but that is beside the point)  I had dropped the ball and blown the “perfect weekend” (a stupid goal to begin with)…  After this realization set in, I felt even worse for how hard I came down on Ben.  Yes, he made a bad decision, and yes, it is important that he understood the danger that he put himself in that should never be repeated, but I certainly had some making up to do with him for how I reacted.

Not a shining moment in my parenting legacy, but it provided me with a good learning moment for myself and reinforced two points that I seem to relearn over and over again: 1) It only takes a minute for the kids to get into something dangerous and 2) some of my most upset moments with the kids have more to do with me than it does with them.  While this is by far the worst infraction that Ben has on his record to date, this scene is likely to play out more than a few more times over our kids lives…I am just hoping that this experience will better prepare me to deal with the next one just a little more productively and recognize who I am more upset with at the time…them, or myself?