The responsibility of nurturing a young person was now the priority, and we hoped our new home in the woods would be a healthy setting to raise a young family. Far from the busy-ness and distractions of town living, we wanted to live more at the pace of nature and develop our own family culture.
Today our two children are young adults and living on their own, and my wife and I now have answers to the questions which nagged us over 30 years ago. For those of you who may be considering a similar move, here are some thoughts to share on the experience of raising children off-grid.
Is the setting too rough for a child?
Our cabin was rustic to a fault. It was drafty, built with rough lumber, with no indoor bathroom, only minimal plumbing and no electricity. But the setting outside the cabin was beautiful – thickly forested with large trees, and rocky, moss-covered bluffs. The setting provided a natural playground for children, with infinite possibilities for discoveries right outside our doorstep.
The rough home turned out to be ideal for child-raising. Because the floor was unfinished and there was no fine furniture to damage, indoor play was facilitated. This was appreciated during the long winter months when so much family time is spent indoors. The children could horse around indoors to their hearts’ content without the parents doing damage control. Spontaneous projects, wrestling, swinging from the rafters, even tricycle riding were all in the mix in our living area during the long winter evenings.
A small house meant we shared activities. The kids had their own rooms but preferred to play near the fire and in the center of family activity. We parents were involved in the children’s activities by default, and the children were privy to our adult conversations. This seemed to work to everyone’s benefit.
Will they be safe?
Along with the benefits and positive experiences that come with raising children in natural areas, come many moments of anxiety as a parent. There are more than enough risks and hazards in our natural setting to keep a parent’s imagination active with possibilities of what could go wrong. Our children always seemed to stay out playing in the woods, along the shore or on the water until the last glimmer of daylight. I worried about them getting lost coming home in the dark, or having a tree fall on them, or them falling out of trees, slipping on the rocks, falling overboard from their small skiff…
Our kids are now grown up, ages 32 and 37. They made it. They never fell out a tree and cracked their heads, never fell overboard while fishing far from home, never became lost overnight in the forest or fell off a cliff while rock climbing. Although they often stretched the limits of their freedom, they always arrived safe at home, albeit usually in the last light of day. Touch wood. Children growing up in a rugged natural environment seem to recognize the hazards and become responsible when they need to. I remember my son Ben confiding to me once, ‘Dad, I only take risks when you’re around.’
But while we expected our kids to assume responsibility when off on their adventures, the ultimate responsibility rests with the parents, and in a remote environment there are no emergency backup personnel like police or emergency rescue teams. Parents need to be extra vigilant. One story that reverberated through our community was of a young couple living in a float house who left their baby in a jolly jumper while they went out to tend the rowboat during a strong wind. While they were in the boat adjusting something, somehow the line slipped and the boat blew offshore. The oars were left on the beach. They were blown to a small island about a mile away where they had to spend the night. Summoning help at daylight, they returned home and found the baby was out of the jumper but safe in the cabin. It was a hard lesson with a fortunate ending.
“Dad, I only take risks when you’re around”
Our kids did not realize that while we gave them a long leash to play with, we were keeping a close eye on them. When the boys would take off in a small boat to go fishing, sailing or exploring, we tried to keep an eye on them with binoculars, and always had a chase boat ready to go. Sometimes I would follow them along the shore, through the trees, just to be sure they were acting safely. They always were.
There were hardly any other kids the same age close by, which meant our kids didn’t have the ‘safety in numbers’ of a group. They were on their own a lot, so we as parents needed to spend more time in preparing them for various activities and more energy to ensure their safety.
What if they get sick?
Some of the most challenging moments living off-grid arose when one of the children became ill, injured or showed some strange symptoms. These moments can make a parent feel irresponsible for raising his family far from medical help. Fortunately, most child health issues we had to deal with were not severe.
There are many resources available for home diagnosis and treatment procedures, and we relied heavily on a large paperbound book called Taking Care of Your Child by Drs. Pantel, Fries and Vickery. The book is organized for quick, easy reference, and each ailment or symptom is described in clear layman terms. Each ailment has “Home treatment options” and “What to expect at the hospital.” This manual helped us decide whether to treat a certain illness at home, rather than put the sick child through the stress of a long trip to the clinic. We kept Taking Care of Your Child right beside the First Aid Kit; it was invaluable to our health and peace of mind.
We only had one health related experience that made me question my judgment in living off-grid. Our two-year old had a high fever of unknown origin, and on calling the hospital we were advised to bring him in. I bundled him up and put him in the dory for the row to the dock. It was dark, mid-winter cold, and the waves were up. We had an hour’s ferry ride and another hour car ride ahead of us. We returned several days later, with our child improved, but in similar conditions, and this experience was probably the low point of my years raising a family.
Rural and remote communities are also well served by Air Rescue and Coast Guard boats. A hospital helicopter can arrive at our community within an hour of receiving the call. In retrospect I probably should have called them in when advised to take our child to hospital.
Will they be lonely?
Yes. In a small community there are not enough peers for daily play. Our children each had a few friends but they didn’t live close enough for casual play. And so our children each spent a lot of time playing alone or with each other. They never acted as if this was a problem, but I felt they were missing out on some of the joys of childhood companionship. I suppose this helped make them the independent young adults they are today and fostered their close relationship.
Fortunately, the community helped fill in for the lack of peers. Children and adults in the community are all on first name basis and there’s healthy communication across generations. My son Ben’s fishing buddy was 15 years older. Weekly soccer games in the summer have teams made up of boys and girls, with ages ranging from children to seniors.
How lonely a child gets also depends on the individual. One summer day we took our younger son to play soccer with a team of youths in a town some distance away. After the game, when it was time to get back on the ferry, he went to each player and shook their hand to say goodbye. It was then I realized how he valued the group experience.
So will they be lonely? Yes, at times. The early childhood years are conducive to living in a close-knit family environment, but as the children approach the teen years they need to branch out and spend more time with others. For our family, having our children move to a larger community for high school was the best choice.
Will they be bored?
An old friend of mine used to say ‘boredom is a lack of imagination’. And children, as we all know, are imagination experts. I don’t recall our children ever being bored. Having no TV helped cultivate their imagination. They had a varied natural environment to explore, and even today as adults they love to head into the forest or onto the water when visiting. As children they made their own games, created paintings and carvings, played music, engaged in constant horseplay, and had plenty to do helping with the many homesteading chores. Every night my wife would read a book out loud for an hour at bedtime. We played board and card games, played music, told stories and entertained each other. No one asked for TV, and digital devices were not yet commonplace. I am grateful our kids did not have these gadgets when they were young.
The many quiet times that come with living in a rural area, and the absence of distraction from TV and digital devices gave the children time to think. Time to contemplate, time to process their experiences. Thinking is a critical skill that contributes to learning.
What about learnin’ and schoolin’? Will they have educational opportunities?
My wife and I didn’t want to assume that our children would want to follow our off-grid lifestyle choice. We wanted them to be able to attend university if they were so motivated, and have the opportunities that follow. So getting a relatively standard education for our children was important to us. But in a small 3-room schoolhouse it was unrealistic to expect a few teachers to cover all the subjects for each grade, especially since some grades might have only one or two students. So at the beginning of each term we would do a little research to find out the standard curriculum for our child’s grade. Then we could meet with the teacher and identify what the school wasn’t covering, and teach that ourselves to our child at home. A few times we got a tutor to help with the more challenging subjects. Fortunately, our closest neighbor was a retired math teacher, so she was a great help.
Transitioning to high school on the mainland was smooth. We never felt that our children suffered any academic or social handicaps as a result of their rural upbringing. In fact, I think living off-grid was an asset to the children’s education. With no TV and fewer distractions, our evenings at home were more routine. We always had meals together which was an opportunity to share ideas. Every night there was reading, conversation and using one’s imagination in active entertainment. I think all these activities contributed to our children’s future academic success.
Besides learning ‘for school’ there’s also learning ‘for life’. Many practical skills aren’t taught in schools, and small communities have an advantage in that people know each other and are able to tap into the collective bank of knowledge and experience. Older people especially, since they have more time and the benefit of life experience, seem generous in their willingness to help out the younger generation. Whether it’s how to saw a board or fix a bike, how to build a structure, pluck a chicken, split a log, grow a garden or harvest wild edibles, there is usually a human resource available for any interested young mind.
The Four Musketeers
A family culture of shared responsibility seems to go with off-grid living. We simply need each other to get things done and keep the meals on the table. We used to tell our kids we’re the ‘Four Musketeers’ – all for one and one for all – committed to helping each other get through life. We each pitch in where we can, and this is instilled at the earliest age. Even a toddler can gather kindling, feed the cat or take out the compost. Young children can help raise chickens and gather the eggs, dig clams, help with the harvest and with meal preparation. As they grew older, they could spend hours out on the water, but not just in idle play. The goal was to bring home fish for the table, or beachcomb for a board or log we could use at home. They seemed to prefer purposeful activities more than simple recreation, although there was plenty of the latter as well.
This sense of shared self-reliance can empower kids at an early age. It boosts their self-esteem to be contributors, and as parents we tried to remember to acknowledge their contributions, often during dinner when we could discuss the day together. I think most people, children included, prefer to be givers rather than takers. Our children didn’t often ask for things, they seemed to enjoy being providers.
The ‘Four Musketeers’ analogy is admittedly corny, but it is easy for a young child to understand. We wanted our family bond to be close and mutually supportive, and although we are of different ages and abilities, we’re equal partners in the experience of living together.
Living in nature is a fertile environment for a young child to be raised. Ideally, he or she has not been exposed to too much modern technology to miss it. As a parent, you will find yourself closer to your children since you will be going through so much together. Our kids were with us much of the time, aside from when in school, and this was a great gift for us and them.
Modern living seems almost overwhelming to me. There is so much stimulation, so much information, such rapid change in technology and social media that it’s difficult to keep up. It’s hard to imagine how young children absorb so much. I think all children could benefit from spending their early years in a setting close to nature, with life a bit slower, with parents more available to provide guidance, and with the grounding that comes with living a self-reliant lifestyle.
But young parents should have no illusions about the requirements that go along with raising a child in an off-grid location. You’ll have less free time than your friends in town, and you’ll need to spend more of your time with your children, as a parent, a teacher and a companion.
And I wouldn’t want it any other way.