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Day 75 – Open Play and the Limits of Freedom

Freedom is a word we use a lot around here. We give the girls a lot of it.

As evidenced by this:



Or this…



Or this.


But obviously there are limits.

My children met those limits today, at an event ironically called, “Open Play.”

More of that in a minute.

The morning had been dedicated to an A Rocha meeting, and we had several families over to the house to discuss our Backyard Diversity Project. Carolyn visited us from the Cumberland River Compact (where the girls had received their Catfish Rodeo prize) and she told us a little bit about planting rain gardens in our yards.

Nashville people, did you know that you can request plants from the Cumberland River Compact, and they will give them to you for FREE?? For an 8×10 rain garden they will give you about 25 native plants. This is a pretty sweet deal, and I can’t wait to see what birds and butterflies frequent our garden after we get it set up.

Now to our experience at Open Play:

After our meeting, we went to our Homeschool Association’s Friday meet-up. We meet at a community center that also has a playground outside and a large amount of woods. It was cold today. COLD COLD COLD. It flurried in the morning and never really warmed up after that.

Once we got to Open Play, I instructed the girls immediately. “You will NOT go into the woods. You may not. It’s way too cold and I don’t want to have to find you. Go straight to the gym, please.”

Now, a quick visual reminder about what I am talking about:

Shelby Bottoms

This picture was from a day earlier in the fall, when it was beautiful and warm and sunny. Today was not warm and sunny. Today was FREEZING. I did not want to spend even five minutes in the 30 degree weather, no matter how much we’ve been craving outdoor time.

We slipped inside of the community center and the girls headed to the gym to ride on scooters, skates, and to play with their friends.

There is a lobby area outside of the gym where moms sit. We talk. We read. We knit. We work on projects on our laptops. Or we just sip coffee in a zombie stupor. We had been cooped up inside for so long without consistent gatherings with friends, so I knew my kids needed this time, and I needed it too.

But we were on a tight schedule today. I needed to run to Lipscomb to turn in a form for one of my classes, and then we had to get both of the girls to a dress rehearsal for their dance and drum recital. I had to leave at 2pm to give myself enough time not to be a nervous wreck.

At 1:55 I gave the girls the 5-minute warning. They were unusually cooperative. They immediately put aside the gym toys and picked up their jackets.

As we approached the door to leave, a friend of mine walked in. As the girls saw me stop to say hello to my friend, they asked, “Can we wait outside?” They caught me mid-sentence. They caught me off-guard. If I had five more seconds I would have realized the danger in giving them permission. They were asking for freedom when we only had five minutes.

I was glad to see my friend and to say hello. I knew our conversation would be less than a minute long. But, if you are a parent, you understand just how much can unravel in one minute.  I was out the door in less than 60 seconds. And the girls? Absolutely NOWHERE to be found.

You know the times when you’ve lost sight of your kids in the park or at the zoo or even the grocery store and you get a slight panicky feeling in your gut? I’ve felt that before. But NOT today. Today I felt only immediate anger. Because I knew they were fine. I knew exactly where they were. Safe, but deep down the trail into the woods. And I would have to go in there. Into the bone chilling wind. We were supposed to be getting into the car at that moment.

Outside it looked like a playdate ghost town. I saw a small handful of kids who were roughing the cold out on the playground. “Have you seen Sera and Amelie??” They hadn’t. They just dangled from the monkey bars like normal kids who don’t hike into woods when it’s literally freezing outside.

I ran to the opening to the woods where I knew they had gone in and I screamed their names, followed by:


If that doesn’t pull a kid from the fun adventure of the woods, I don’t know what will. I kept yelling anyway. I was cold and mad and annoyed.

After several minutes I walked back into the community center and my friend Alice noticed the look of rage concern on my face. She asked me if I was okay. I nearly cried, but again, not because I was worried about the girls–but because I was so mad! She offered a plan: If I absolutely had to leave to make the rest of the plans on time, she would keep an eye out for the girls until I got back.

I just felt so helpless. I didn’t really want to leave. I just wanted everyone to be in the car together and to go home. Out of the cold.

After TWENTY minutes of searching and yelling I finally called Josh. I think he could tell I was about 5 seconds from melt down.



If I’m honest, I’m always 5 seconds from meltdown. But Josh completely agreed that the situation warranted the reaction. I hadn’t been worried before, but it was getting increasingly colder. Josh even felt like it was a slight emergency.

Maybe they heard me talking on the phone to him. Maybe they heard me sobbing into the phone pleading with the universe that I just wanted to go home. I didn’t even care about turning anything in at school anymore, or being on time to anything. I just wanted the circulation back in my cold, numb fingers.

They must have heard something, because that’s when I heard them: “We’re here! We’re here, mama!!”


Give me a break you guys, I was FREEZING.

I herded them together and lectured them all the way to the car. And all the way home. And on the sidewalk as we walked to our door. They were crying by the time they got inside the house.

Josh and I had already agreed that their actions deserved a severe consequence. This was when I was on the phone with him, and I was 100% sure that they had darted off the second they could, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to stop them or find them, and that this would give them more time to play. I was 100% sure that they knew they were not supposed to go into the woods because I had said it earlier that day. I was 100% sure that they were being selfish and sneaky.

Josh agreed with me–so I know I wasn’t just blind with irrational anger. But after sitting the girls down and talking to them, we learned a few things as well.

They had also been 100% sure about a few things. Even though I said it was time to go, I had stopped to talk to another mom–and usually I talk for a long, long time. Sera just kept saying, tearfully, “I was just SO SO sure that you would talk for like, 20 minutes!” Fair enough.

They were 100% sure that when I said not to play in the woods, I had only been talking about that moment–when we had first gotten to the park. They thought I was giving them permission when I said they could go outside while I talked to my friend.

They were also 100% sure that I was being completely unjust.

What followed was a really wonderful conversation between all of us. Josh was home for the day, so we all sat in the living room and talked about what had happened. We had ALL made assumptions and there had been a lot of miscommunication between us.

Josh and I conceded that they had not been acting purely out of defiance or selfishness. But we also told them that they had not been considerate. They also had not used any critical thinking whatsoever. They hadn’t thought about the fact that we can’t communicate with them when they are in the woods, and that while we want to give them freedom in this area, they have to tell us where they are going before they go there.

Sera might have been 100% sure that I would talk for 20 minutes, but she also didn’t have a watch or any way to gauge how much time had passed. We asked them to put themselves in my place. To think about how it felt to be cold and upset and after awhile, yes, a little bit worried.

They really changed their attitudes after that. They were contrite. We agreed that they deserved no further punishment, because my reaction shook them enough for them to know just what a big deal it was for me to not be able to find them when I needed to.

Part of this leniency was because we realized that we did not have a standing plan for playing in the woods. I realized that I had not been totally clear. We also agreed on a future plan. They must always, always ask before going into the woods. We also would bring our walkie-talkies next time. And watches.

The whole thing ended up being okay: the kids eventually came back. I eventually regained feeling in my appendages. We even made the rest of our day on time. But it was certainly a lesson on the terms, conditions, and privileges of freedom.

I’m glad they are learning these lessons as children. This is part of why we give them freedom in the first place. Their inconsideration caused me to suffer–and they really saw that and understood it. I think this did far more for them than an arbitrary consequence for breaking a rule.

And there is a wonderful truth that I don’t want to lose sight of: my kids ran into the woods because they felt safe enough to do it. Their assumptions, although wrong in this particular moment, were based upon the freedoms I have given them in the past. And I’m glad they have that foundation.

I have to admit that granting this much freedom may inconvenience me. It isn’t as easy as setting up black and white rules with easy consequences. There will be much discussion, much pushing and pulling, much joy and much heartbreak, I’m sure.

But without freedom they will never know their potential, or their weakness. Freedom fosters courage, but it also teaches limits.

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