unLessons from the Badlands: why letting children choose their paths is good for innovation and thus our future and economy

Badlands for UU

I am hiking with the three explorers in Horseshoe Canyon, in the Canadian Badlands around Drumheller, Alberta. We take the hardest, steepest possible way down. Flora scrapes her hip. Ender loses his shoes. “There’s the path!” I call out when we get to the bottom. And we start heading that way. But look! “A garter snake, a garter snake!” Cinder hollers. And we go that way.

“Cacti! Mom, seriously, look–dead cacti! Are those their flowers? How will they grow back?” demands Flora.

“I found orange water!” screams Ender. And we go that way. Zig-zag. Go up, then down, then up. Left, left. Right. Backwards. All over the places. We discover… so many things.

Most adults, beloved, are lazy. Maybe that’s harsh. Maybe… utilitarian is a better word. Maybe… tired. Whatever. With a handful exceptions–and that handful of exceptions are the men and women who’ve changed the world, at least in part because they never grew up–we like to choose the easiest, most direct path. Here’s Point A, where we are, and there’s Point B, where we want to go. And there’s the easy-to-see, tested-by-others path from A to B. Let’s take that!

In the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon, there is a handful of such paths and I see them. Point to them. We set out in their direction. But my explorers abandon them constantly. Search. Discover. Find nooks and crannies in that Canyon that I never suspected existed.

Sometimes, they come to a path or incline I am not willing to take. “You guys go up. I’ll wait for you down here,” I say. And then, because I am not a thoroughly negligent parent, I add, “Don’t die.” They scramble up. “The view from up here is incredible!” they holler. And from up there, where I was too tired (lazy) to climb, they see a new path up out of the canyon. Very different from the one I was going to take them on.

I won’t beat the metaphor into you with a sledgehammer. So clearly apparent, don’t you think? Also note this: I’m not abrogating any parental or adult responsibility here. They need me, the intrepid explorers need me to–know about this Canyon. To take them there. To have water and a first aid kit along. To tell them what black widow spider nests look like and to tell Ender, again and again, not to stick his frickin’ hands into the web-covered holes.

But… if I insisted they keep to the trodden path, to the safe path… they’d never see anything I hadn’t seen before.

They’d never change the world.



P.S. Earlier this week, on Nothing By The Book, I tackled cake, fairies, unicorn pee and the laziness of my burnt out grey matter in one chaotic post. Yes, it’s as odd as it sounds.