Years ago, in a box elder south of the house, my son Mark built a solid floor for the tree house, then turned the project over to the younger kids.

After a fairly active season it stood vacant for awhile, noticed mainly whenever visitors would have to pass it, sending a shudder of tidiness paranoia through my wife, or whenever a west wind would twist the branches of the tree, making the high boards creak.I often considered taking it down but never got around to it - kind of like not throwing away your kids' school papers or projects. Destroying their creations, regardless of worth, seems a bit like casting valuable historical documents into a blazing fireplace.

Then several weeks ago the box elder tree house entered a new phase. One day I stepped out on the porch and heard uneven hammer blows coming from that side of the house, accompanied by muffled kids' voices. After listening for a minute I could tell that it was sons Andrew and Beka and maybe a couple of others. I could see bright flashes of T-shirt through the brush and realized that the old plywood perch was being resurrected. Later that evening, Andrew approached me with a challenging request: Would it be OK if they slept out in the tree house?

Immediately I envisioned him rolling over at 3 a.m. and falling to an untimely death.

"No, I don't think so. What if you fell out in the middle of the night?"

"We won't fall out. We've got walls and carpet and a thingy to lift stuff up, and we fixed the steps, and a roof too, if it rains."

Still unmoved, but too preoccupied to check it out, I stalled with the excuse that it was too late in the evening to be planning a sleepout of such major dimensions. That seemed to suffice.

While drawing the tree house, I found that Andrew was probably right. They really did do a bang-up job. Somewhere they finagled sturdy plywood scraps for the walls, and there is really no place to fall out except at the entrance above the steps, which wouldn't be too bad anyway, because it is on the uphill side, so that a plunge from there wouldn't be any worse than from a top bunk of an average bunk bed. It was the other side which hangs over the slope in a fairly long drop that I had pictured in my mind with him splattered halfway down the hill.

Apparently, the kids had been conscious of the danger, too. The high side had been sealed so tight that I doubt you could get much more than a squirrel on a hunger fast through the widest crack.

The bottom line is that now I regret that I didn't check it out better before squelching the kids' sleep out. This most recent romance with the tree house is over now and they are on to other things.

Too often we distrust the vision of children, keeping them bound to the restrictions of our own stances. Of course, we are obliged to set restrictions. But that is offset by the fact that healthy growth toward adulthood includes the ability to break the protective grasp of parents, to forge personal visions, and to cope with the world on terms we have defined for ourselves. Likewise, part of the skill of parenting is knowing when to recognize that vision in our children, and how to nourish, rather than to suffocate it.