Alice Shi Kembel’s Take on Captivity vs. Freedom for Mice & Mini Makers

Our former pet mouse, Snowflake, started out as snake food.  He and two other mice had been purchased by our son’s friend to use as bait for snake traps in the field next to his house in Park City.  When we returned to his house after a five day excursion to Yellowstone National Park, we found three mice in a colorful plastic cage, complete with a climbing tunnel, loft, and running wheel.  My three boys fell in love immediately, and spent hours playing with the mice, who they named Snowflake, Brownie, and Ribbon.

When our son Jonah’s friend and his mother returned to the house two days later, the mice had become pets in the boys’ minds, so it was a shock to them when Tyler announced, “I’m going to use the mice in my snake traps now.”

Tears, protest, and outrage ensued, but we reminded the boys that the mice belonged to Tyler, and it was up to him to decide what to do with them.  Brownie was put in a snake trap, and Ribbon was set free.  Only Snowflake remained in captivity, his fate yet to be determined.

Jonah came to me in tears about the mice.  “I really wanted to keep them as pets,” he sobbed.  

“I know, buddy,” I said.  “Why don’t you go talk to Tyler and tell him how you feel?”

After an admirable conversation about their feelings, the two six-year-old boys decided that they would try to retrieve the two mice that were outside and go from there.  They tromped out to the vacant lot with Tyler’s mother.  When they returned, they reported that Brownie had escaped from the snake trap and was nowhere in sight.  Astonishingly, they found Ribbon and recaptured him.

“We had a really interesting conversation about being out in the wild versus being in captivity,” Tyler’s mom told me later.  “Jonah was talking about how animals were safer in the zoo, where they would be fed and cared for and protected from predators, and Tyler pointed out that animals in the wild, while they face more danger and might have a shorter life, at least get to experience freedom.”

“An animal in captivity can be a pet for a six-year-old,” I said, “and I’m sure that’s why Jonah took that standpoint!”

Ultimately, after much negotiation, Tyler decided that Ribbon should be set free again, but Snowflake could remain in captivity because he had an injured eye from being played with too roughly, and would thus be unable to defend himself from predators.  He agreed that we could keep Snowflake as a pet, so we carted him home with us on the two-day drive home from Park City.

Frankly, I really didn’t care much for Snowflake.  He had beady little red eyes, his cage stank, he pooped all over when he was held, and he staged Houdini-like escapes from his cage.  But the conversation between Tyler and Jonah about animals being in the wild versus in the zoo got me thinking about my role as a parent – how it requires striking a balance between raising the boys in the safety of “captivity,” while preparing them, little by little, for the wild, real world.  

The safety, protection, and predictability associated with being in captivity makes sense for young children. They need the basics of food, clothing, shelter; on a higher level, they benefit from a schedule, routine, boundaries, and unconditional love as best as we can provide it.  

And yet, despite being the control freak that I am, I want them to experience freedom, to explore, to color outside the lines, to learn to make their own decisions, to engage the world with curiosity and passion.  If they were forever held within the constraints of an over-programmed, over-controlled, micro-managed environment that my temperament, if left unchecked, would probably create for them, the opportunities for them to thrive, and learn, and live fully, would be squelched.

It’s not easy to find the ideal balance, but this is what it looks like in our house for our seven, five, and three-year old boys.  Captivity is: a regular bedtime, going potty before we leave the house, writing thank you notes for birthday presents, clearing plates after a meal, getting shots at checkups, cleaning up toys, saying “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me.”  

Wild and free is: disregarding the instructions on a Lego set to build their own speeder ships, filling a planter with water to create a mud pit in the backyard, making up our own ending for the “Going on a Bear Hunt” story, singing whenever and wherever we feel like it.  Wild and free also looks like: letting the boys fall down without running in immediately to rescue them, allowing them to feel jealous when a brother is getting birthday presents, letting them choose how they spend their 25 minutes of “getting ready for bed” time, even if it means that because they dawdled over brushing teeth and getting pajamas on, they only have three minutes of reading time left.

To me, preparing the boys for the wild, real world means allowing them the freedom to explore and think for themselves, but also letting them experience the natural consequences of their choices and helping them see that life doesn’t always go their way.  As the boys are all spirited children, they don’t need much encouragement to think for themselves, but experiencing consequences and not always getting what they want can be difficult for all involved.  Still, I think the struggle will be worth it in the long run, so we continue to try to strike the right balance.

As a rule follower and people pleaser, I am good at captivity.  But if I were asked to choose between the manufactured happiness of Disneyland or the rough and natural beauty of being in the mountains, I’d take the mountains any day.  The zoo is fun to visit, but the wild is where life is truly lived.  I hope that my husband and I are able to raise children who feel the same.


This post is submitted by Alice Shi Kembel, speech-language therapist, swimmer, quilter, photographer, hiker and writer. As the wife of one of the co-founders of the Stanford d.school, Alice absorbed principles of design thinking through osmosis. Upon discovering that none of her three boys were the type to color within the lines, she embraced the maker mentality and can now sometimes be found trying to refinish furniture, adding recycling to the bin of materials in the project lab in the basement, or reminding her boys to be careful with their pocket knives as they whittle sticks into creations of their fancy (mostly play weapons). As recent transplants to Boulder, Alice and her husband are actively involved in helping create the design lab at their children’s new school, Mackintosh Academy.  Alice loves aspen trees, garage sales, escapist novels, and pre-prepared foods. Find Alice at www.aliceshikembel.wordpress.com

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