There's an adventurer impatiently waiting inside your child. If allowed, he or she would jump at the chance to discover new lands, with or without a sailing ship. I've seen it played out so often: a child strains at the end of a mother's arm, pleading, “Mom - Mom - can I go over there and check that out?”

That pull is a good thing. It generated by a hunger for discovery. It also comes out of a desire to be independent, to face the unknown alone, without having Mom point out the potential hazards along the way. The fact is that like the seafarers of old, kid explorers need a certain degree of uncertainty and risk. As novelist André Gide once said, "One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time." That's some of the fun of exploring.

But that's also what makes us parents balk. In our climate of fear of predatory strangers, we are not willing to let our children lose sight of us. For the most part, that's a wise precaution. But I worry about what this protection might be doing to that healthy drive to discover. We groan about how sedentary our children have become. Might the lure of video games partially be that they offer the only worlds left to explore?

What do we do? How do we give our kids the chance to investigate new territories? Obviously, we don't send our small children off to explore a crowded mall. But surely there are still places where we can give our kids a sense of freedom without leaving the range of our protection.

I'm a big fan of novels about the great sailing ships. Whenever the sailors would disembark to tramp around some new island, the ship would lay nearby at anchor. You can be that ship, that anchor for your kids as they go off to explore in a controlled environment: a campsite, a park, a friend's yard, a relative's spooky attic. In public places, you may need to tell them to stay within a line of sight. In more private situations, they can roam more freely, knowing where to find you.

Let your child set sail. Just make sure he brings his anchor.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2006 Bruce Van Patter