Lost in the Woods

This essay, What hsnhedbfrb
Losing My Kids Taught Me About Free-Range Parenting
, appeared in The Tennessean. It’s by Maggie Conran, author of the blog nomommybrain (motto: Just Say No to Mommy Brain!).  The piece packs an emotional wallop because we’ve all had that WHERE ARE MY KIDS? experience. In this case, Conran’s  family was at the local woods, the kids asked if they could take a shortcut, and after some misgivings, she let them. We pick up here:

“Pleeeeeeese, can we do it, Mama? Please?!?”


“We’ll be safe! And stick together! We can do it. I know we can!”

I thought about it for a minute and then said yes. We planned to meet at the Nature Center if we didn’t see each other on the other side of the trail. They tore off down the muddy path, more excited than I’d seen them in a long time, and we went on our way.

As we walked, I only wondered a few times if I had done the right thing. What if one of them slips in the mud? Or gets tired? Are they really big enough for this type of independence? But overall I felt fine. No gut feelings telling me I should worry. No inkling suspicions I had done the wrong thing. No sudden worries about weirdos or wild animals.

When we got to where the two trails meet, the boys weren’t there. I figured they were just taking their time but walked to the Nature Center to check for them just in case. They weren’t there either. So we walked back a bit and I hopped on the Beaver Trail to meet up with them. My friends took the circular trail back the way we came and we planned to reunite at the Nature Center.

As soon as I stepped foot on the muddy path, my stomach lurched into my throat and I started to panic. Where before I was confident the boys could do it, now I knew for sure they could not. The ground was so slick and muddy with patches of ice I could barely walk without falling. And yet, here I was, running, sliding, yelling their names, wondering why in the world I had ever let them go.

The longer I was on the trail, the more terrified I became. They just weren’t there. I tried to convince myself we had missed them somehow but there just wasn’t any way that made sense. If they were still on the Beaver Trail when we were walking to the Nature Center, we would have walked right into them on our way back.

Where were they?


You can read the rest here. But, heck, here’s how it turned out: The kids got a little lost, saw a familiar landmark, walked toward it, and got back on track. Picture a happy reunion with a crazed mom. (The boys weren’t even crying.)

At the time I was so scared and relieved and remorseful and nauseous that I just held my boys tight and got us all safely to the car. All I could think was that I shouldn’t have let them go. Why did I let them go? It was a bad call. A mistake. I was overflowing with regret.

On our short drive home Finn piped up from the back seat. Muddy and smiling he said, “This is my most luckiest day!”

“It is?” I said nervously, still shaking. “Why?”

“Because we found you!”

It took me several days to accept that he might be right.

Nothing bad actually happened. It was awful — don’t get me wrong — but only because of what I thought might have happened. What really happened was pretty great. The boys had an epic adventure. They stuck together. They used their brains and their feet and they did what had to be done. They were beyond resourceful. Scared but brave. I honestly don’t know how they did it without freaking out but they did. And honestly? I think they’re better for it.

I, on the other hand, would just as soon die than experience that again. But I guess that’s sometimes how it is with letting go. With parenting. It takes guts. More guts than we have sometimes.

Reminding ourselves that mix-ups and mishaps are normal is one aspect of Free-Range. Of course the whole road won’t be smooth. What is? (Besides a smoothie.) If everything had gone as planned that day, it would be have been forgotten in the miasma of normalcy. Instead, it’s a day the kids felt grown up — and did grow up.

That IS a lucky day.


Conran and her boys, safe and sound. (But on a BOAT! ANYTHING could happen!)

Conran and her boys, safe and sound. (But on a BOAT! ANYTHING could happen!)


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29 Responses to Lost in the Woods

  1. Linda July 10, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    The link to the blog didn’t work for me. But I found the article here.

    Great story! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Michael July 10, 2015 at 11:50 am #

    I’ve had 3 or so terrifying moments in my Free Range parenting.

    Once, the kids were allowed to find their way alone through a resort we were staying at, and didn’t show up at the meeting point (miscommunication).

    Another, was in a CRAZY busy pre-Easter day in a busy Target store when my little went to the snack aisle instead of the toy aisle as we had discussed, and I panicked due to the sheer volume of people going in and out pre-holiday as I searched the store for her.

    Most recent was on our family vacation when we thought our 7-year-old was outside the lodge playing in the grass, so sent 4-year-old back outside to her, only to find out that 7-year-old had gone back to our cabin, and then 4-year-old “followed”, unbeknownst to any of us. I remember my heart falling to my feet in the moment as I yelled her name and ran toward the lake.

    In all cases, no harm was done (maybe lost a *few* minutes off of my life / grew a few new grey hairs).

    What I continue to remind myself is that communication is critical, and that as you have said, there will be bumps. But they are all so very worth it. My kids are going to be so much better prepared for the world from having their daily freedoms, and learning to find their way.

  3. Havva July 10, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

    “Nothing bad actually happened. It was awful — don’t get me wrong — but only because of what I thought might have happened. What really happened was pretty great.”
    That right there is what has changed in my brain since I found free range. I was well programed before that to see how bad it could have been and focus on that. To see how an event *could* spiral out of control. There was a time people told me “nothing happened, get a grip!” … Then society started encouraging a focus on what could have happened… if reality hadn’t happened instead.

    How much reading Lenore and the commenters here has changed me came into sharp focus the day my daughter (then a toddler) took a run at the stairs.

    A visitor had left a door open that we were using as a baby gate. Our friend knew, but just forgot to close the door. And faster than any of us knew what was happening my little girl was running full speed toward the basement stairs. I tried to run and stop her but realizing I couldn’t close the gap in time I shouted “stop!” not expecting her to actually listen. But thankfully she had reached the point of obeying my commands just in the nick of time.

    Old me would have looked at that as the day my daughter nearly tumbled down the basement stairs and nearly cracked her skull. I would have felt endless guilt. I would have viewed it with fear. Old me might have put a gate in the door frame that would close automatically, and brought the stairs up to modern standards, not the late 50’s standards they were built to. And most of all I would have redoubled efforts to make sure she couldn’t walk anywhere until I was certain all gates/doors were securely closed, feeling that twinge of guilt every time I preformed that ritual for the one day I had lapsed (even though nothing happened).

    Free range me realized, despite the fright of the moment, that this was the wonderful day I discovered her OS got the ‘follows safety commands’ upgrade. That this meant I didn’t need to be so directly on top of her anymore, because I could stop her with my voice. So I took a deep breath, joined her over by the stairs, and told her not to run near stairs, and why. Then I tried her upgrade outside. When there were no cars about, I let her take her rid-on-top toy down the driveway, without me body blocking the end of the driveway. And she followed my commands to stop and turn. Rather than doubling up the security at the stairs I started leaving the door open on purpose, when I could observe, and stop her if needed. We never had another incident. Within a week I didn’t need to tell her when to stop and turn on the driveway, in a few months we quit closing the door leading to the basement. That was the great day that we started getting away from the padded baby world, and back to living like normal people.

    Those first steps toward giving her a little space, a little freedom and independence came from the clarity that “Nothing bad actually happened. … What really happened was pretty great.”

  4. Natasha July 10, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

    These experiences are what make kids into grownups. Critical thinking, problem solving, independent thought.

  5. Tina July 10, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    Even smoothies aren’t all smooth if your blender isn’t working properly!

    We love to free range our kiddo. We don’t push her, but I sometimes wish she had more confidence to explore a little farther on her own. She’s getting there though!

  6. Shelly Stow July 10, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

    Focus on what did–or in some cases, didn’t–happen instead of what could have happened. What a wonderful lesson!

  7. SanityAnyone? July 10, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

    If I were the Mom, I would have little fear that the boys were actually harmed. If one were hurt, the other would certainly run for help, there would be a big flap, and we’d notice quickly.

    My new fear is that the happy, muddy boys would be detected on the Beaver Trail and hauled to the nature center where the rangers would be waiting for me to show up and hand me a heap of trouble.

    This replaces my older way of thinking, wherein if my boys were lost, a stranger would point them toward or show them the way to the nature center. When I arrived there frazzled, they would tell me “don’t worry, your kids made it back safely” or at worst “we really don’t recommend that children under age 12 be left alone on our trails”.

  8. Stephanie July 10, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

    This reminds me of my son’s 4th grade class field trip to Yosemite about a month ago.

    First of all, I really admire the teachers who plan this trip for the class each year. The school has about 75 4th graders, and about 70 went this year. It’s a ton of work for the teachers. 4 days, 3 nights in the tent cabins at Yosemite is a lot.

    Many parents come along, of course, but the kids stay with their classmates in the tent cabins. We went along because Yosemite. My husband’s favorite place in the world.

    This year one kids got sick just hours after arrival – croup. Yosemite medical had to give him breathing treatments. Naturally, this was one of the kids whose parents didn’t come along, which made things much more difficult for the teachers and I’m sure stressed out the parents when they heard.

    Mostly the kids ran free through the campground. They had to help cook meals.

    My son did a lot of independent running around, which drove one of the other moms up the wall. She kept telling him that he had to stick with us, which was a ridiculous notion. He slept in a tent cabin, we had a regular campsite. Just about every other kid was running around without parents directly watching for large chunks of the day. But whenever she saw my son, she would scold him for not being with us. When he finally told us about it, we told him that she was wrong and he was fine, and to point her out to us as soon as possible.

    The most annoying thing she did was grab his backpack when he was trying to join his father at one of the overlooks on the big class hike. There was a path to the overlook and a wall for safety, but she told him he couldn’t go there, even though my husband had signaled him to come over. My husband was so mad that she had done that and he hadn’t seen.

    We certainly had some scary moments where we weren’t sure where one or another of our kids were. The general area they roamed was pretty big, and kids don’t keep good track of time when they’re having fun. But I think one of the major parts of a field trip like this is letting the kids learn to do stuff on their own, and that’s what that one mom just didn’t understand.

  9. JulieC July 10, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    Once we were at a huge swim meet – thousands of swimmers and parents. Each team had a designated team area to set up tents etc. generally a decent walk from the pool and the stands. My husband and I were sitting in the stands and my younger son, who was maybe 3 at the time, was sitting with my husband (I was one row up). My husband stood up to cheer, and my son evidently took off. It took us a few minutes to realize he was gone (lots of people moving around, standing up and down).

    For a good ten minutes (seemed like an eternity) I searched for my son. Word spread among our team parents that we were looking for him. I was making my way back to the team area, and one of the dads walked up to me, and said, “he’s fine. he’s at the tents. I told him to wait for you.” He gave me a hug and I swear I almost started to cry. When I got to the tents I asked my son why he had left. His response?

    “I needed to get my sunglasses.”

  10. Marianne Lappin July 10, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

    We’ve all been there. Congratulations for your trust in them & for handling it so well.

  11. Havva July 10, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

    @Stephanie, it sort of sounds like the other mom thought that the parents that came along came along because their kids needed (or the parents wanted) extra supervision. Perhaps she was someone who didn’t come along “because Yosemite”. I’m with you I would have been there “because Yosemite!”

    I’m familiar with the low intervention parent on the school trips. My parents often came along on school trips without telling me they were going to be coming. Whenever I found out they were there it seemed to be because my dad is a doctor and some other kid got hurt or sick.

  12. MR July 10, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

    Yesterday at a local fair my littlest (3.5) wanted to go on a ride that she couldn’t go on without an adult and I didn’t have a wrist band so a women there with her young sons offered to take her. So I took her backpack while she took my child! She had so much fun and I was so thankful

    Then while at the animal exhibit the littlest wandered off. She was standing right beside me cleaning her hands and when I turned back after making sure my other 4 kids cleaned their hands she wasn’t there. My initial thought was that she had wandered to a near by exhibit with one of her older sibling but then I saw each of them she wasn’t there. Then I thought she was just at one by herself (by far the hardest part of free range parenting in a large family is that the little ones see the confidence their older siblings have in doing things independently and the younger ones want to and try to do what is more age appropriate for the older ones). After a minute of looking around near by we widened our search range. My husband went one way and I went the other and when we met without her is when my heart stopped. But with 8 of us looking (all the other kids plus a teen cousin) she was found within a few minutes and I saw my 9 year old son carrying her back to me. She was at the exit likely because she had mistaken someone for one of us and followed them until she realized it wasn’t us.

    The wonderful thing and the point of my post is that a family had seen her obviously confused and the dad had taken her hand and they were walking around trying to help her find us when one of my older kids saw them. I was so thankful for the kindness of strangers. Thankful they found her before she left the tent, thankful she had someone to help her feel less afraid, thankful they helped her look for us.

    My mom still tells my kids “don’t talk to strangers” when they go out to which I say “really just don’t GO anywhere with strangers”. But then more than once in our life our kids had to ask for the help of a stranger (once when our oldest got hurt at the park a mom helped her get home). I think it is important to teach them to trust their instincts and that sometimes we have to ask for help. I know a lot of people would focus on the fact that it “could have been a bad stranger” but that is extremely rare and the more likely case is that sometimes in your life you have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

  13. lollipoplover July 10, 2015 at 4:11 pm #

    We lost our son 2 years ago on the Assateague island wildlife preserve. It started out as a normal family biking trip on a very hot summer day but my son (who just turned 12) decided to bike ahead while we took pictures and took a wrong turn and was lost for hours. My husband finally decided to bike back to the house we were renting, thinking he biked home when he couldn’t find us (it was 8 miles back to the house). I didn’t think he would be able to find his way back on his own, but he did. When my husband got there, he found him happily fishing off the dock and drinking from the garden hose. He wanted to call us but didn’t have a phone or a key to get in the house. I alternated between wanting to beat him and hug him but was secretly so proud that he found his way back when he knew he was lost.

  14. librarian July 10, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    Had a similar frightening experience this spring – the second time my 9-year-old went to play in the nearby park with a friend. Partially it was my fault – we “kind of” agreed where and when I need to pick her up, but I failed to make sufficiently sure she memorized it, because I gave her a cell phone. Guess what – the cellphone slipped out of her pocket, so I couldn’t reach her, and she didn’t come to our meeting place. My husband and I ended up looking all over the park for her, and I was scared out of my wits. Well – nothing bad happened. We found the kid, someone else found the phone and returned it to us, we all learned some lessons. We now make better plans that don’t include over-reliance on technology.

  15. Denise D Hammond July 10, 2015 at 7:55 pm #

    OMG. Kids on a boat with no life-preservers on??? How could she? Well, I let my boys go all over our neighborhood. Let them ride in the boat without life jackets. Allowed them to learn independence and responsibility. I have three great adults, but in this day and age I’d probably be in jail and they would be in foster care. Government really knows best. Enjoying your blog.

  16. En Passant July 10, 2015 at 8:07 pm #

    Key passage from the article (emphases mine):

    Things suddenly didn’t look familiar and they worried that they made a wrong turn (there are no turns but I get it — sometimes things look different when you’re out on your own). They weren’t sure what to do so they stopped and looked around. Way across the field they could see the gazebo we often stop at on our walks (the “Observation Deck” on the map up there). It was far but familiar. They knew if they could get there, they would be back on the trail and could find their way to the Nature Center. So they took off across a muddy field to a familiar landmark.

    Stopping to look around when you think you are lost is what grownups call “presence of mind” and “situational awareness”. It is the first priority for anyone who actually thinks he is lost.

    That’s what these kids did. Don’t know if they came to it on their own, or if somebody taught them. But kids are certainly capable of learning it.

    As an aside, many youth organizations, back in the days before helicopter parenting became so popular, taught orienteering skills to children. Cub Scouts, Brownies, and other organizations which emphasized outdoor life taught those skills.

    Most kids I knew in the 1950s could tell approximate North by noting position of the sun while knowing the approximate time of day; knew to periodically note the general direction they were walking by knowing approximate North, to prevent walking in circles; knew to stop and look around to note landmarks even before they thought they were lost, and as the first priority when they did think they were lost; knew how to “blaze a trail” when taking a shortcut off the beaten path (ie: break small branches at eye level in a conspicuous way) to find their way back; and many other related skills.

    These skills do not require rocket science, and kids often learn them by their own experience. But they are skills that will help kids avoid getting lost. I think any free range parent would find it comforting to know that their kids know those skills.

  17. Michelle July 10, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

    A few months ago I took my kids to a park we rarely visit so I could attend a meeting for moms with babies. Last time we were there, my oldest two boys rode off on their bikes, had a good time while I stayed on the playground, no problem. This time, the oldest (16) wasn’t there, but the 11 and 12 year olds wanted to go down the bike trail. I cautioned them to stay in this section of the park and let them go. An hour later, they weren’t back. I walked the whole trail; they were nowhere to be found. Back to the playground, the parking lot – I was starting to freak out when my phone rang with an unfamiliar number.

    Turned out that when the trail passed under one of the roads that marks the boundaries of the park, they didn’t notice. They were under the impression that the trail looped back around, so they just kept going. They did notice the trail markers giving the distance they’d traveled, and by mile 7 they were getting worried. When they reached a parking lot at a major highway, they flagged down some STRANGERS (wooo!), borrowed a cell phone, and called me to come get them.

    Yes, I was worried when I couldn’t find them. My younger son was pretty scared, too. But mostly I was proud that they kept their wits, found help, and called me. And I made sure that next time they’ll pay more attention. 😉

  18. Curt July 10, 2015 at 11:46 pm #

    Those two boys learned so much about resilience, resourcefulness, and problem-solving in that one experience that some kids never learn. It sounds as though those two will be ready for Scouting when they’re old enough (if they haven’t already joined).

  19. Abigail July 11, 2015 at 12:12 am #

    Yes, @Sanityanyone – my fear too. I don’t worry about my young kids playing in our front yard and driveway in our safe neighborhood with familiar adults everywhere…I worry about the random person driving through calling the cops. My fear of abduction is by far superceded by overreaching child protective action. What are the stats on that? I need to CTFD!

  20. sexhysteria July 11, 2015 at 12:53 am #

    Adults get lost too.I once got lost in the Canadian Rockies despite my topographic map, and with bear tracks all over the place. (I finally found the marked trail before dark.)

  21. Kiwimum July 11, 2015 at 3:27 am #

    Orienteering! All free range families should take up orienteering as a sport/fun activity (it can be done highly competitively – the Junior World Championships are on just now in Norway or as a family fun thing). Teaches navigation and resilience and problem solving and being out of the parental comfort zone in a big way. My daughter went on her own on a race in the forest when she was about 7 after several years of going with her and gradually handing over the navigation to her. Then I could get back to racing in my own grade 🙂 People say to me how can O kids go out on their own so young – my answer is they have a map! And of course they have been taught what to do – including how to re-orientate if things go wrong. These boys sound like natural orienteers – excellent problem solving, they will feel so much more “able to cope” with all kinds of things in the future. But I do know what the Mum says about taking a few minutes off the parental life each time…

  22. Steve S July 11, 2015 at 9:17 am #

    Orienteering is a great skill that seems to be disappearing as people rely more and more on GPS. It helped me back in the early 1980s when my Boy Scout patrol became lost on a hike. We knew that there was a major county road that ran east/west and that if we headed south we would hit it eventually. We all had a compass, so we made it back to the camp a few hours late in fine shape.

  23. lollipoplover July 11, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    @Kiwimum and Steve S-

    I just brought up orienteering last week with my oldest (14) and his friends while at a park! It does teach many skills (I first was turned on to it in the 80’s), but the boys are very into geocatching, so I can’t knock GPS that hard.


    Anything that gets kids out exploring their environment is cool in my book.

  24. hineata July 11, 2015 at 11:36 am #

    Miss Knows Everything and I had an ‘interesting discussion’ at the Alhambra yesterday in Granada, Spain, a city neither of us knows at all, where they speak a language we just don’t. We have been traveling together for weeks now and are getting on each other’s nerves just a little bit :-). In not possibly the best parenting decision of my life, when she refused to acknowledge my existence for the third time I jumped in the closest taxi and went back to the hotel. And consequently spent the next 30 minutes waiting for a knock on the door from the policia, and also wondering at what point I should phone them myself. ..

    At the half hour point she knocked on the door herself, having found the wherewithal to find a cash machine and withdraw some Euro with the emergency card I’d forgotten she had, and catch her own taxi.

    So free range skills can also see a kid right, even in (especially in?) less-than-perfect family moments :-).

  25. Sarah July 11, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    I worry more about what other people will do if they find my (perfectly fine) kids without me. My kids will be fine on their own. It’s other people interfering that could cause problems.

  26. Shalae July 11, 2015 at 8:19 pm #

    My 6 year old is very independent and quite stubborn we went to a minor league baseball game last night and met my family there. We all had tickets and he felt so big holding on to his own. In between all the hundreds of people getting food and walking the concourse we got separated. I bet I felt the same way this mom did. I pushed my way through the crowds back and forth clutching my three year old for dear life while sending my 13 year old the other way. I decided to take my 3 year old to sit by my family while I could search for him. Guess what…there he was sitting with grandma and papa saying I’ve been waiting for you. My family was impressed by how smart he was to find his seats in such a crazy place by himself. I was almost crying. But so proud. We went again to the baseball stadium yesterday. This time I let my older sons and him get tickets to play the games and get a drink because I knew there really wasn’t any danger and they know how to find us. That allowed me to let my 3 year old have fun and husband relax.

  27. Barry Lederman July 12, 2015 at 2:16 am #

    To Maggie Conran,
    You overcame your fear and trusted your children. There is no greater gift you can give someone than trust. You are a deserving candidate for Mother of the Year. Well done.

  28. Meg July 14, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    I could be wrong, but I think the standard advice for young and old when lost in the woods (at least unfamiliar woods) is to stay put.
    I know for certain many people young and old have gotten much more lost by trying to find their way out. Of course, the children have to know that it’s o.k. to answer, “Strangers,” who are looking for them. I’ve read of at least one child who was lost and afraid to respond to rescuers! It doesn’t sound as if this area was actually wilderness, and there were obviously familiar landmarks, but I was curious whether that advice to, “Hug a tree,” and stay put had changed.

    I think children are also encouraged to carry whistles these days.

    I had a heart stopping incident when my younger son was lost. I try to remember to point out where kids can go if they get separated from us at large places-most fairs, ballparks, amusement parks, and so forth have designated, “Lost kid,” areas.

    So glad this mom chose to look at it as a happy adventure rather than dwelling on what might have been. That is still a struggle for me!

  29. Warren July 14, 2015 at 3:30 pm #


    Whistles are okay but easily lost, broken and more times than not forgotten. As a hunter and angler, I have been asked for advice by friends and family alike.

    If you find yourself truly lost make noise that cannot be mistaken for something that naturally occurs in the area. Best is to find a large stick, and bang it against a rock or tree in a steady pace. Passing hikers or whatever may excuse one or two raps, but the steady knocking will peek their interest. And yes staying put is best as long as where you are provides some protection from the elements.