It took a trip to the wilderness to parent like I wanted to.

My four-year-old collapsed in a field of daisies, his face contorted in anger: “This is the WORST DAY EVER!” His baby brother clutched my leg, howling, “Big bear ding-dong! Big bear ding-dong!”

Songbirds scattered from the trees around us.

I stood in the middle of the trail, toddler attached to one leg, four-year-old prone in the field beside me. The kids’ wails rose into the cloudless sky. We were in a wilderness paradise full of meandering paths, tree swings, stick forts, and an off-the-grid school bus I had rented for our weekend camping trip. On my own. And six months pregnant besides.

There was no one for miles to witness this parenting fail.

When Matt went off on his annual guys-only canoe trip, I decided to take the kids on a camping trip of our own. I had everything figured out. The best food and plenty of it. The right gear but nothing complicated. I even prepared the kids for the tricky parts of our stay, like how our host asked us not to push the buttons or play with the steering wheel inside the bus. Gus and Henry had no problems with that.

I was Super Mom, I told myself, hoisting the cooler above my third-trimester belly and lugging it up to the bus.

What I couldn’t control, however, were the kids’ emotions. Including how many they had. Or how loud they were.

Who could have predicted that the moment we stepped into the woods, the toddler would become terrified that a big bear was coming to ring our doorbell? Or that the four-year-old would have an endless (it seemed) case of the blahs?

Not me, obviously.

I was helpless in every sense of the word.

I had snacks and water in my backpack, but the kids weren’t hungry or thirsty.

A nap? Who was I kidding? Who would fall asleep in the middle of a hiking trail?

Bribery? I suspected not even a bucket of ice cream would please the four-year-old in that moment. I certainly had nothing comparable in my pack.

Distraction? Can’t really distract a toddler from his fear of the woods… when you’re in the middle of the woods.

And while we parent without threats or punishment (to the best of our fallible ability), neither would have helped the situation I was in.

It no longer was about what would “work.”

It had to be about what they needed.

Somewhere on that trail, in the middle of the woods, with no one watching, I began to parent the way I had been striving to for months. I didn’t shush their voices because there was no one to hear them yelling. I didn’t rush them because there was nowhere we needed to go. I didn’t bribe, distract, or manipulate them because… honestly, at the end of it all, we’d still be out in the middle of the woods, and it made a lot more sense to help them rather than cajole their problems away.

I realized that I was a better parent when no one was watching.

And that I spend too much time worrying about what other people think.

Instead, I sat down on the path, held Henry, and read to Gus from My Father’s Dragon (because that’s what he asked me to do). Yes, I thought things like “we could be reading this book at home” and “is anyone going to have fun this weekend?” and “my butt is falling asleep,” but I kept those thoughts to myself.

After awhile, the kids started to relax.

It wasn’t long before they began to have a good time.

I did, too.

My son went to the perfect preschool. It was totally unnecessary.

Gus finished preschool last week.

As I walked into his classroom on the last day, I took in the giant windows that overlooked the woodland playground. The school’s pet chickens were squawking around outside. A group of children in rain boots raced across the yard with their teacher, starting off the daily hike across the wildflower prairie, to visit the animals at the farm, or to hunt for frogs in the rocky creek. The classroom was spotless, as always, with a new rotation of open-ended toys displayed on the wooden shelves. A few of his classmates had arrived already and were reading picture books in a wooden loft draped with silk cloths and twinkle lights.

It really was a lovely school, I reminded myself.

He just didn’t need it.

But maybe we parents did.

Throughout the year, I noticed that when I made small talk in the lobby at drop-off and pick-up, my conversation with other parents often returned to: “Isn’t this place amazing? I wish I could be a kid here!”

The nostalgia was drenching. I know I felt it. It was that feeling, that longing for an idyllic childhood, that led us to enroll Gus in The Perfect Preschool last fall for two afternoons per week.

By Thanksgiving, the glamor wore off.

The preschool was still as perfect as it had seemed in the beginning. The teachers were just as kind. The activities were just as magical. It was just that… maybe we didn’t need perfect after all.

I know Gus didn’t.

If you had asked him what his perfect school would be, he’d probably say a place with stuff to climb on, a bunch of books about wolves and the Revolutionary War, and a handful of friends who like to pretend to rescue animals and appreciate a good potty joke.

Sounds like our house. And the friends he has in our homeschool group and in the neighborhood.

But all year long, we’d leave those places – setting aside whatever book or project he’d been immersed in at home, bailing out of playgroup before the game had really ended – and go to preschool, where he would do exactly what he would have been doing at home. Building with blocks. Digging in the sand. Listening to a story. Except this time he’d be in a room with abundant windows, pet chickens, and twinkle lights, and we were paying an arm and a leg for it. (Because, as early childhood educators agree, The Perfect Preschool should focus on play, exploration, and curiosity. The value of teaching kids to read, write, and add when they are very young has been thoroughly disproven.)

And while Gus was outside with his preschool class, digging in the mud and climbing trees, Henry and I were on the other side of the preschool grounds… digging in the mud and climbing trees. It seemed redundant. Why weren’t we all together? We certainly wanted to be.

Around the time that Matt and I were talking about calling it quits, a new student enrolled in Gus’s class. He would quickly become the first friend Gus ever made on his own. Happily, he’s also part of our homeschool group (small world), but the friendship didn’t develop there – it developed at preschool – and that, to Gus, made the world of a difference. And because he was so excited to go to preschool to see his friend, we decided to finish the school year.

After all, I remember my first real friend. (Ah, the nostalgia!)

It turns out, we didn’t need handcrafted wooden blocks or biweekly naturalist-led nature walks to give Gus an idyllic childhood experience.

If I had realized that his favorite parts of preschool would be playing spaceship with his friend and attending the ice cream party on the last day of class, we could have bought a tub of Blue Bunny, scheduled a bunch of playdates, and called it done.

That’s what we’ll be doing from now on.

And as for learning? Well, if the best schools inspire play, exploration, and curiosity, I’m pretty sure Gus has that covered on his own.