A Sinister Tradition for the Happiest Kids in the World
Whenever my husband blindfolds the children and steers them into the back of the car, I am reminded of the stark contrasts between childrearing in the U.S. and in his homeland, the Netherlands. Yet our family’s annual pilgrimage to Holland is not complete without a good, old-fashioned dropping, when children are abandoned in the woods and have to find their own way home.
I must confess that the first time he explained the concept of the “dropping” to me, I was perplexed.
The machinations are simple enough. You blindfold children, drive them to some undisclosed, often wooded location after dark, and then see if they can find their way back home. Alone. The part that I had trouble understanding was, why on earth would anyone want to do this to their kids?
“It’s really fun,” my husband assured me. “We used to love the dropping when I was little.”
He also assured me that the children are not entirely abandoned in the forest. A few parents remain out of sight to make sure that the kids follow the clues left behind by an advance team: scraps of paper left on rocks or tree branches with riddles suggesting which way to go. They also make scary noises – just in case kids left alone in the forest at night might not be frightened enough.
Is it any wonder that Dutch children are reportedly the happiest in the world, as UNICEF reports? Measuring happiness seems like an inexact science to me, but I will admit that indicators such as less stress and more unsupervised outdoor playtime would contribute to a child’s well-being. Dutch children far younger than mine would hop on their bikes and ride to the park or the store on their own. The mother hen in me always fretted over my chicks, so I tested the limits of my comfort zone during our annual visits. The first time my husband took the kids out for the dropping, I think I was more nervous than they were.
My husband took great care to find a challenging destination. Together with a friend – whose daughters became our children’s annual dropping companions – they spent hours choosing a route and leaving age-appropriate clues. These little scraps of paper – like crusts of bread – were to lead the children back to the house.
Sometimes the kids miss a clue. And sometimes an evening rain shower renders the ink illegible. Sometimes they get the riddle wrong and head in the opposite direction. But they’ve made it home every time. Laughing and screaming and proud of themselves.
It’s not a bad skill to have, really, finding your way out of a dark forest. And as these rituals continued year after year without incident, I began to relax.
Well, almost without incident.
A few years into our dropping routine, my husband and his friend were trying to confuse the blindfolded children squashed in the back (no seatbelts!) by circling a roundabout several times. I’m not sure how many circles they had made when they saw the lights of a police car behind them.
My husband’s friend – a family court judge – stopped the car and turned to him as the policeman was approaching the car.
“I can see the headlines now,” he said. “Family court judge arrested on kidnapping charges.”
But when the police officer looked into the car and saw five blindfolded children crammed into the back seat, he didn’t raise an eyebrow.
“We’re off to a dropping,” the judge said.
“Oh, a dropping,” the policeman laughed. “Have a good time!”