rise and fall

For two days last week, my son went to work with my husband.

If you take a boy to a job site, he’s going to need to build something, right? It’s just logical.

My husband had brought home some of the scrap lumber from the house they were tearing down, so my son decided to build a fort (of course).

For the next couple days, he worked his tail off. He had big plans. Two stories, maybe three.

But after the first day, my husband came home and put a limit on the tower—no more than two stories.

Look at my husband’s posture in that picture. Arms crossed, head bowed. It does him in, all these slapped-up forts.

“When I was his age, I built a fort, too,” he told me later. “And you know how long it lasted? Twenty-five years! They had to use a tractor to pull it out of the tree!”

It’s legendary, that club/tree house is. It had bunk beds, a front and back porch, and a glass window. It was wired and insulated and sturdy as all get out.

“He’s having fun,” I said. “He’s just a kid.”

“He has no plan! He never measures anything!” my husband wailed.

“He’s not you,” I said. “And that’s okay.”

“He did use cross-bracing, though,” my husband said, brightening slightly. “He must be learning something.”

I liked the fort well enough. It kept the kids busy and out of my hair.

They climbed over the framework like a pack of monkeys, and I realized that the jungle gym I’ve always wanted my husband to build is entirely unnecessary. The kids are old enough to build their own jungle gyms.

Within a couple days, the fort was 16-feet high.

There is a shift that takes place when your kids gain the skills to construct monumental forts that reach truly frightening heights. I’m not exactly sure what to do with their newfound ability to threaten their physical well-being.

What if one of them falls and gets hurt? It’s not like injuries never happen.

So we set limits. My husband gave them the two-story limit, and he made them clean the old, poking-out nails out of the wood.

I yelled sage advice such as, You better not fall! I don’t want to spend my afternoon in the ER!” and, Broken bones hurt! You really don’t want to get one! and, You only have two eyes so they’re kind of important! And then I went back in the house and avoided looking out the windows.

And then the fort fell over.

It started to fall while the two oldest kids were working in it. When they recount the adventure, their eyes light up and their words hurry together. They make lots of sound effects. “This huge gust of wind came [sound effect] and there was this really loud [sound effect] and the fort started to tilt [sound effect], and I yelled, ‘It’s falling! Get out now!’ and we jumped out of there as fast as we could, and man!”

And so another fort bites the dust.

The end.

Update: Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, showcased this post on her blog!

This same time, years previous: buttery brown sugar syrup and cinnamon molasses syrup


  • Fanny Harville

    I read about this on Free Range Kids. I too think the fort is awesome, and I think it's great that you didn't intervene to turn it into a "teaching moment" as some commenters here suggest. Surely your kids have ample opportunity to learn about proper construction techniques if they want, but the sheer exuberance and creativity that seem to have driven this project (without any interference) is priceless!

  • ElisaMomof4

    I'm kind of surprised at the negative comments, but then again not really. I'm new to your blog, but I don't see anything wrong with how you handled the whole thing. Kudos to you on not letting the worrywarts get to you.

  • herpcrazie

    AWESOME!!!! I'd love to see my boys doing just the same thing. It's funny, but my eldest (almost 9) has somehow gotten the impression that doing things like this is scary. 🙁 My youngest (3 1/2) would be thrilled, but for the time being, he must do his building with his block set. For the time being, I have to settle with my eldest climbing the tree in the front yard and hope that soon his imagination will get the better of him. sigh. A tomboy mom can dream, can't she?

  • Angie

    This is completely awesome, and your kids will remember it all their lives. Don't let the pearl clutchers get to you — this is what childhood is supposed to be, and your kids are lucky enough to have the space and the materials and the parents who'll let them take advantage.

    Could they have been hurt? Of course. Heck, if one of them had fallen so as to land squarely on his head, he might've died. Or a meteor might kill one of them tomorrow while they're sitting at the dinner table. Worrying about the crazy-rare dangers is crazy. They did something a little dangerous, experienced it falling apart around them, and got out safely; that's a great experience, and they'll do a better job next time. Ten or twenty years from now, they'll handled themselves much better in a dangerous crisis than those whose childhoods were bubble-wrapped and fully supervised by helicopter parents.

    Go you!


    • Eric

      It seems odd to celebrate a shoddy, dangerous fort when the dad seems fully capable of helping them build something worth building.

      What is the lesson here, waste a few days for absolutely nothing and enjoy your failure and be glad you don't get hurt from your foolishness?

  • Anonymous

    When I think of all the 'unsafe' things I, unknowingly at the time, allowed my 5 children to do it makes me shudder. Until I go back to my own childhood and recall climbing around in the rafters of my dad's barn, jumping from there way down into the bin of wheat, climbing to the very top of the high silo and being almost frozen in place with fright, my sisters and I playing dolls up in the branches of a maple tree, salvaging things from the glass and metal strewn dump, riding bike all around the neighborhood bare feet and all. And who ever heard of a bike helmet!
    Kids who are allowed to take risks are safer in the long run. They develop a tremendous sense of balance both physically and emotionally. I say this as my 10 year old just spent his entire day out in the meadow banging together a most precarious looking jungle gym for the goats to climb around on. He's my fourth and I've learned long ago that it's better to let them go and stay out of it.
    Karen, I'm not talking about 2 year old's here. Allowing a young child alone outside next to a road is never a wise parenting choice.

    Aunt V

  • Sheri O

    Hello Jennifer,

    Okay first of all – Wow – really? There's controversy about a fort? I don't get it? I don't know how old your regular posters are, but as a mom of 2 (7 & 9) and on the far side of 45, I don't see the problem. As kids I, my brother and our friends built forts, tree houses, an underground hide out and a half pipe for our skate boards and it never. ever. ever. occurred to anyone's parents to watch, comment, give advice or take cute pictures (kudos to you for that one :-D)! We had a blast! Sure kids got scraped up, their parents patched them up and sent them back outside.
    We were resourceful and learned from our mistakes.
    The number of car accidents involving injured children is higher than the number of children hurt every year from forts falling over in the backyard, and yet many parents still drag their bubble wrapped kids to soccer practice every week instead of letting them run around in the park or backyard. Amazing!
    More power to you Jennifer – and your lucky kids!! Keep encouraging their imaginations and they'll go farther than you could ever believe!

  • Lia

    I get that you want your kids to entertain themselves and be creative, but shouldn't there be some supervision? You took the time to photograph them. Why not take the time to arm them with with some information about basic carpentry? You do home school them, right? Wouldn't this have been a good time to teach them something practical?

    • Unknown

      "Decide you must, how to serve them best. If you leave now, help them you could; but you would destroy all for which they have fought, and suffered." Yoda

  • Anonymous

    It's clear … their cross-bracing was not really CROSSED, it was like this / / so the whole thing racked (slanted sideways) and fell over whrn the wind hit the nice big sail that the siding made.

    NEXT time, have them look up proper corner bracing and make sure it's like this / /

    Maybe with footings sunk in the dirt?

    Nice fort, great learning experience.

  • Lightsleeper

    Good for you. Great for your kids. There is nothing like building something to help kids understand how the physical world works, and kids who understand how the world works are safer than kids who memorize a list of "don'ts." In every generation previous to ours, this kind of thing would have been completely uncontroversial. A broken arm or leg is inconvenient, but a life lived swaddled from all risk is tragic. Don't let safety bullies get you down.

  • Anna

    Are they going to have another go? Nobody ever says to kids now, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again," because everybody is too worried about their kids failing to even let them try in the first place. My six year old tried to build a den out of bricks. We only had twenty bricks though!

    Youe kids are very lucky 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I really wish we had the property to have constructions like this. My hubby has many memories of growing up on farm land and fixing up his own dirt bikes, riding them, making forts etc. Sadly city kids don't have the same luxuries.
    Your kids will have these memories forever!

  • Nathan Neulinger

    That fort was just a little bit scary, but completely awesome at the same time. Way to go! (Dad to Emily/10 and Abby/5)

  • Tara

    I think it was a fantastic way to plan, build, work together and stick with a project! Hope someday my own kids can do the same!

  • Beth Brubaker

    Two words. Top. Heavy. lol!

    I wonder why they built up the top first and not the bottom? Maybe next time, you can have them try out things with popsicle sticks first- to test the design. That way they can see what works and what doesn't without all that hard work! (good to get rid of all that extra energy though!)

    • Ashleigh Patterson

      This! Make it a science and building project too – they can build an awesome fort if they plan it out first. I remember building one about fifteen feet up a tree. In the middle of the woods, by myself. Including the ridiculous 'ladder' I built up the tree. And when I was finished I was SO proud of it.

  • dr perfection

    Maybe this isn't any of my business but I'm going to say it anyway. What are you doing? Letting your children put themselves at risk for serious injury? This really concerns me. Please explain because I don't get it.

    • S

      Brava for you! Don't pay attention to the paranoid people who'd rather keep their kids safely locked in their homes with a TV screen to entertain them.

      From Manhattan mom who never remembers to lock her front door, 30 years later (we have a doorman anyway).

    • Meagan

      How dare she give them the confidence that only comes from sincere trust? How can she let them learn from their mistakes? What kind of mother allows a child to exercise his/her own judgement?

      Like she said, it's a balancing act. And sometimes you come crashing down, that's how it works. There are certainly other philosophies, but they have risks too, they just aren't so clear or immediate.

    • Anonymous

      Meagan, if one of those children ended up with a massive brain injury falling from that height, what would he/she have to learn? Nothing, because he/she would never have know what it was that he/she did wrong. I'm going to say that I'm with Dr. P on this. That picture scared the crap out of me. If one of the children fell from that distance, a lot more than a leg could have been broken. Setting some boundaries isn't being a bad parent, either, and it has nothing to do with trust. I wouldn't let my 2-year old play outside by himself because he doesn't yet understand that the road in front of our house is dangerous and he could be HIT BY A CAR. Does that mean I'm not letting him make his own mistakes or that I don't trust him? Does that mean I'm not instilling confidence? No, I'm outside, letting him play as much as his little heart desires with his safety and well being in mind. It means I'm doing my job as his mother to protect him from harm, to help him understand what is safe and not, and so that he has every opportunity to live a full and healthy life. Sorry, Jennifer. Can't say I'm with you on this one. Love you, though. 🙂

    • Jennifer Jo

      Dr. P, I took your questions seriously and wrote an answer that I then sent to Lenore Skenazy's blog, Free-Range Kids. There are a number of comments there that might help to explain the reasons I (sometimes) let my kids do dangerous stuff. http://bit.ly/wCCYBa

    • racheleh

      Dr. Perfection? Methinks one should take another look at one's own mirror. There seems to be spots in it from my point of view.

    • dr perfection

      Jennifer, I read your article. I think Bob's was an excellent comment. There is a middle ground. Can you agree with that?

    • Jennifer Jo

      I'll just add that my kids' interests are very different from my own—I (and they) would be miserable if I had to hang out with them all the time because I was afraid they might get hurt. So while Bob's comment seemed good at first glance, his suggestion to be present while they play is neither practical nor healthy. (A number of commenters responded to him, as well. If you dig through the comments, you'll find them.)

    • dr perfection

      I don't think Bob or anyone else thinks you should hang out with your children all the time because they might get hurt. I think Bob's point was that if you are going to allow an extreme structure (too high) perhaps there should be some adult input into how to build it safely (so it doesn't blow over)

      There is a middle ground.

    • Anonymous

      man, i tried to post something and i think it got deleted. i was just saying that i have a few friends that are on the opposite end of the spectrum. bubble wrap their kids, basically, and worry. never let the kids experience, make mistakes. I don't agree with that kind of parenting either. I've seen how it makes the children worry about everything they do, how they don't want to try new things, etc., but I definitely agree there is middle ground.
      We are all different, though. I think it's important to appreciate that, and respect it. If anything I've learned the past 5 years, it's that parenting is a process. I must say I learned a lot from reading the comments in this post and in the other post on Free Range.

    • Jennifer Jo

      It froze in that slanty position until they pulled it the rest of the way down, so I didn't have to rush too much. (I missed the final crash.)

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