Feral Children

A typical scene on my block.

A typical scene on my block.

The other day, I had my writing group over for dinner so they could eviscerate discuss my new book The Boy Who Loved Birds, which I am still considering erasing forever. It was one of those perfect evenings in Minnesota – pleasantly warm with a gentle breeze, all blossom and fragrance and birdsong and green, green, green, green. My back yard bumps right out onto park land, so from the table on the patio, you look out onto a green slope and a green field and a tangle of woods and a swollen creek with a charming footbridge arching prettily over the water. If you look up idyllic in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it says Kelly Barnhill’s goddamned patio.

Anyway, somewhere between the tortellini and the wine and the orange popsicles, a scene unfolded before us – familiar enough to me, but my comrades were stunned by it. A troop of shirtless boys – a couple with hand-torn strips of cloth tied around their heads in makeshift headbands – came tramping down the hill, passing by the yard and heading over to the fallen down willow tree by the water’s edge. The boys in my neighborhood call it “The Fort” or “The Village”. The girls call it “The Fairy Tree”. Obviously, the girls have the correct name, but we try not to make the boys feel bad about it.


Two of the littler girls trailed behind. To the untrained eye, it looked like they were tagging along. For those of us in the know, it is clear that they are there to a.) be in charge and b.) collect evidence for future tattling, blackmailing or politicking. They stopped on the hill to roll down it – boys and girls together. When they got to the bottom, they stood as if this was the most normal way possible to travel downhill, and proceeded to march across the field.

“Hey kids!” I called out to them.

“Hey Kelly,” the kids called back. Or some of them did anyway. My son ignored me entirely. They tramped by and disappeared into the green.

My writing group turned to me.

“You live in a damn Norman Rockwell painting,” they said.

“Is it like this all the time?” they wondered.

And the thing is? On my block, yes. It is like this all the time. Kids wander this way and that – from back yard to tangled wood to alley to bridge to riverbank to field to garage to basement to somebody’s kitchen to back yard and back to the field. They travel on bikes, on scooters, on roller blades, on skateboards and on foot. When the field floods they bring out paddle boards or kayaks. Sometimes they try to wrestle giant carp swimming in the shallow waters covering the grass. From time to time, parents will text or call with the whereabouts of this child or that child. If I am looking for my son, for example, I’ll check with the parents across the street, and if they don’t know, I’ll ask the parents next door to them, and if they don’t know I’ll check with the family down the block, and if they don’t know, I rely on the fact that I can call out really really loud (it’s one of the perks of being a former singer – I project) and eventually my son hears me and comes home.

The kids here. They run wild. It is good that they run wild.


“Do you want to just tell your kids that they’re not allowed to grow up to be messed up? Do you tell them look at what we have provided for you! It’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, even the most idyllic childhood doesn’t rescue us from having our own dark nights of the soul. Pain – physical, emotional, spiritual – is inevitable. We were born broken. We will die broken. We will be broken along the way. However, I like to think that this little kid paradise tucked into Minneapolis will give them something special as they muddle their way through the perils of childhoods into the skins of the men and women that they will become. I hope that the wild children that they are right now remains an essential part of who they will be. I hope that, even when they are old, that their souls are still muddy, grubby, grass-stained, sweaty, hard-muscled, bright-eyed, and still utterly, utterly wild.

One of the benefits of the feral childhood – because, let’s be clear. That’s what they have. Sure they brush their teeth when they are told and do their homework on command and clean their rooms when under duress and come in for dinner after only the seventh or eighth warning, but they are far from domesticated – is that they have this opportunity to claim the world that they inhabit. This is a powerful thing for a child – something unavailable to them when they’re at school or baseball practice or church or grandma’s house. When they roll down the hill and tramp across the field, there is no rule that they do not negotiate and agree on among themselves. There are no clocks or watches. There are no gold stars or percent marks or work books. Heck, there aren’t even shirts half the time.

In the green world, there is only now.

In the green world, there is only us.

Here are my hands, the children say. They belong to me.

Here is the grass, their voices shout. It belongs to me as well.

Here is this stick. It was made for my hands. Here are my arms. And my muscles. They were made to wave this stick around. There is no truth but motion. There is no rule but play. There is no reality outside of myself and this stick and this mud and this tree and this water and this green. This is the only world that matters. 

Here is this field they say. It belongs to us. Here is the creek. It also belongs to us. And so does the sky and everything under it. How good – how very good it is to be THIS boy. And THIS girl. This very one. 

There is no greater thing on earth than a child in motion.  Bless you, my children. Bless all of you. May you own the world forever.

08 Peter and Wendy - F D Bedford - 1911

18 thoughts on “Feral Children

  1. Every time I read one of your blogposts I want to run out and buy everything you’ve ever written in multiple copies and hand it out to people on street corners so that they too shall be enchanted. Never stop.

  2. Hi, I live in London and my boys don’t know this feral way of being, which is incredibly sad to me, because it is how I grew up in upstate New York. So my oldest son, who is five, and I make up lots of stories, in cabs, on buses, riding the tube, shuffling him from one regimented, competitive activity to the next, about worlds where he has powers and a sense of possession and most of all adventure. We reach our stop and his feral moment is crushed by the reality of my hand grabbing his as we maneuver the crowded sidewalk so he doesn’t fall behind or trip or get stolen . . . and, like always, we mustn’t be late.

    • Schedules are the meanest ever! But I love it how kids – when the world around them denies their natural wildness – claim it anyway. Sometimes by scaling the refrigerator and swinging from the ceiling fan, and sometimes through stories.

      Stories, I should add here, cause less damage and are cheaper in the short term. In the long term – who knows?

  3. I am determined that my children be as feral as possible. It’s why I moved to a small town in the boonies, and got rid of the satellite dish, and introduced them to all the hiking trails, and God bless them, they run in packs all over this place.
    Your blog posts are always so wonderful.

  4. Love this post….. and your parenting views and the way you write about them. I grew up semi-feral on the North Dakota side of the Red River and bemoan the fact that my suburban boys don’t get to run free the way that I did (with the exception of trips to Grandpa’s lake and farm cabins). Our neighborhood lacks the elements of water and “forest” — as well as the absence of a suitable tribe of like-aged children — that your neighborhood seems to have. Truth be told, one of your neighbors (the one with ND roots) is a college friend of mine, and you know — the reactions of your writing group to the idyllic childhood scenes going on outside your patio window?? Those are the reactions I frequently have to his FB photo postings — not so much amazement that such a neighborhood exists in the city, but awe at his (and your) great good fortune to have landed in — and I’m sure helped to create — a community in which such scenes are commonplace. Bravo to you all, and enjoy!!

  5. Lovely description of how kids should be brought up Kelly – I know, I’m old fashioned, but there doesn’t seem to be so much “out and about” – more “in and playing on the PC!”.
    Your garden sounds wonderful and I am full of envy . The images used are just beautiful and reminds me of a book in my childhood (was it The Water Babies – maybe – my Mum was a literature person so it may have been). Kingsley wrote some great things.

  6. Oh! Tears! Please, publish this and bind it in leather so we can pass it on to each member of the feral clan. So we can remind them ; like a t-shirt from camp but better written. I’m pretty sure some of them flew through my kitchen Monday evening. Hell, we might have fed some without notice. Come to think of it we never made it to baseball because it was a good night to be free. Thank you Kelly, for blessing my boys with this!

  7. I love this and mourn that we live in the same city. We have feral children too on my side of town, but the reasonings look very different. They play and own and are beautiful in motion too. I just wish and work so that all our kids on the Northside can be wild and safe.

    • Oh, TOTALLY. My dad grew up on the Northside, and it was very different. Each household had a minimum of six kids in it, and they roamed the block in packs. Apparently, there were games of Kick the Can in the alleys that were EPIC. He grew up near St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, but I’m not even sure if it’s there anymore. And my heart breaks for the continued troubles on the North side of my beautiful city – bad luck complicated by bad policy complicated by decades of institutional racism and social complicity complicated by more bad luck. It’s both a shame and a shameful commentary on all of us for allowing this situation to persist. Because it doesn’t have to be like this.

      BY THE WAY. Have your kids read WINTER OF THE ROBOTS by Kurtis Scaletta? If not, they totally should. It takes place on the Northside – the story of a science fair project gone haywire. Highly recommended!

  8. Lovely post. Makes me wish I lived on your block. We visit sometimes—Shawna and Jason used to live in our neighborhood, so we crash their parties and playdates from time to time—but in our neck of the woods, there’s no similar pack for my daughter to join. Alas!

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