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A Free-Range Military Kid in a World of Danger

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Living in Florida, I'm often struck by how much of my state wants to kill me and my children.

Alligators. Sharks. Riptides. Hurricanes. Tornados. Rattlesnakes. Scorpions. Brown Recluse spiders. Deadly jellyfish. Water moccasins. Snapping turtles. Alligators (did I already mention them?). Black bears. Panthers. Wild boar. Rednecks who hunt wild boar. Canadian snowbirds and midwestern Spring Breakers who drive like it's the first time they've smelled the ocean and they just can't be bothered with traffic lights when faced with all that sand and sunshine. The list goes on and on.

And, of course, Florida Man .

And this, my friends, is where my desire to raise my kids as close to Free Range as possible collides with my desire to keep them alive.

I desperately want them to spend long, lazy, unsupervised days playing in the woods and creek behind our house, just as I did as a child in Tennessee. Those woods and creek are the reason we bought the house. I want them to climb trees, splash in the water, catch crawdads, turtles, frogs and lizards -- just as I did.

But then someone up and finds another brown recluse. Or the yard guy shows me the baby rattlesnake he just killed by the mailbox. And if there's a baby, there must be a mama somewhere, and probably more babies.

I was thinking of this -- how my state contains an endless number of ways to kill me and my precious offspring -- the other night while watching TV. The show was about sinkholes, and how they just show up out of nowhere to swallow motels, cars and Corvette Museums.

And where are those sinkholes apparently the worst? Florida. Of course.

The very Earth in Florida is trying to eat us.

It's harder, I think, when I'm solo parenting because the choices are all on me, and that means the burden of responsibility weighs heavier.

What if I choose to let the kids disappear for hours into the woods and one of them gets bit by a baby rattlesnake. Didja know that the babies have stronger venom, by the way?

Or one of the kids discovers an alligator in the creek. Not a big one, mind you; it's just a little creek. But maybe an alligator that is just big enough to take off a finger. Then, not only do I have to live with the burden of that missing digit, I also have to face my husband knowing that I failed in my primary responsibility.

It's like how I (but you know you do, too) drive differently -- let's be honest, more safely -- when someone else's kids are in the car.

If the kids get hurt when my husband is home with me, well that injury is on both of us. But if he's gone and they get hurt -- that one is all me.

But watching that show, I remembered: There was an actual, honest-to-God, Earth-already-opened-up sinkhole at the bottom of the hill behind our house where I lived as a child when my mom raised us as a single mom, where she turned us loose and told us not to come back inside until nightfall.

And how did she handle that danger? She told us not to poke around in there (but, of course, we did anyway). My family lived in that house for 15 years. During that time, not one child, adult or household pet was ever swallowed up by that sinkhole.

Also? There was a pond behind our house. A nasty, scum-covered pond that we sometimes jumped in anyway. None of us ever drowned. Maybe we got sick from the pond scum. I don't remember now. I'm sure there were water moccasins and probably snapping turtles in there. And maybe cougars or bobcats in those woods. Raccoons at the very least. And definitely Brown Recluse spiders.

But all of us made it to adulthood and then some, long enough for us to give my mother 18 grandchildren.

Mine was a childhood that included exactly zero bike helmets and a death trap of a go-cart. A childhood partially without seatbelts, and definitely without booster seats and five-point harnesses. A childhood with huge, perfect-for-climbing trees that I don't think any of us ever fell out of, and if we did, it mustn't have been too bad. We had a trampoline in the backyard with no net enclosure; a metal swing set and metal monkey bars; BB guns; real bows and arrows; ziplines. We swam in our ditch when it flooded during heavy rains.

I have scars from cuts, scrapes and burns, to be sure, but they aren't that big.

I guess what I'm saying is: It's time for me to make peace with Florida, and everywhere else, and with all those things that want to eat me.

The beaches are too pretty for my kids to let the sharks and jellyfish have them all to themselves.

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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