“If you love something, set it free …”

By Beth Wilder

Everyone knows that old saying. Let go of the thing you love. If it’s meant to be yours, it will eventually come back to you. Advice well-heeded in the case of old high school boyfriends and the baby squirrel my brothers once tried to make into a household pet. Advice that is much harder to bear, however, when it comes to the thing we love above all else: our children.

I was blessed with a ridiculously happy childhood, raised by parents who loved and supported me in every way. Well, every way except one. They squashed any attempt I made to do anything adventurous, especially if it would take me too far from home. My college summers were supposed to segue into an exotic life beyond the South, but every idea I had was not-so-politely denied by my parents. Lifeguarding at a resort in San Diego? “Nope. Too many weirdos in California. Come home and work at the neighborhood pool.” Bussing tables at the Old Faithful Inn with my sorority sisters? “No way. That is a terrible job. We’ll take a family vacation to Yellowstone instead.” Studying the Classics in Oxford with my fellow English majors? “Absolutely not. No need to go all the way to England for a Greek class when you can take it on campus next semester.” At the time, I thought they were just plain mean. When I protested, my father always offered up the same line. “We love you and miss you and want you to come home and spend the summer with us.” Yeah, right.

I was blessed with a ridiculously happy childhood, raised by parents who loved and supported me in every way. Well, every way except one. They squashed any attempt I made to do anything adventurous, especially if it would take me too far from home.

Don’t tell my overly cautious father, but I get it now. Determined to lay out a different path for our children, my husband and I worked hard to raise adventurous kids. Now we are paying the price. A lifetime of off-beat family vacations and scouting high adventures instilled in them a love of travel and an appreciation of the greater world that exists beyond the borders of our hometown. We taught them to fly – and they took off. The jury is still out on our college sophomore, but her older brothers have taken adventure to a new level since they became self-sufficient adults. They have seen more of this planet in the past five years than most people do in a lifetime. I remember when our oldest called from college to say he had taken a summer job in Australia. My heart plummeted. He lived on a campus halfway across the country, and now he was spending his summer halfway around the world. But the sting of my own youthful denials rang in my head, so I encouraged him, hoping he didn’t hear the crack in my voice as I hung up the phone. We encouraged other interesting jobs which led to other interesting locales.

One of them even lived in the Rocky Mountain wilderness for a year. In a van. Down by the river. We paid for the plane tickets that took them on backpacking trips across Europe and New Zealand after their college graduations. We applauded their career decisions that led them to far away states. We questioned their choices sometimes, but never squashed their desire. We weren’t crazy about the idea to make a technical summit of Grand Teton without a guide or the rock-climbing trip to an area of central Mexico as famous for its limestone cliffs as its international drug cartel. And the vacations to Colombia and El Savador? Don’t get me started. I mean, who vacations in El Salvador?

I understand now why my father was hesitant to send me off on adventures all those years ago. Once you expose a child to the world, their desire to become a part of that world blossoms. That is the conundrum—the ultimate question for parents. Do we raise them to be brave and courageous and adventurous and allow them to fly? Or do we keep them close, protecting them, holding ever tighter as they try to spread their wings? Do we choose to spend sleepless nights, praying they don’t break a leg in a mountain climbing mishap, or get caught up in a military coup in a third-world nation, or wind up in a foreign emergency room with a staph-infected spider bite from a rain forest arachnid (which actually happened)? We set ours free. And they do come back, again and again, with stories to tell. As much as I miss them, and worry about them, and pray for them—I am thrilled for them. And more than a little jealous. The experiences they are having will shape them for years to come, and I can’t wait till they come home again to tell me all about it.