Dear Parents of America,
We need to have a little chat, gang. There's something I've noticed over the past few weeks - not coincidentally, a time period that corresponds to the beginning of summer. It's this: We have done ourselves a huge disservice over the past twenty years or so, and I think it's time we rectify it.
Back when hair was long, pant legs were wide, and Saturday nights were feverish, summer vacation referred to that time period when us kids basically ran feral for ten weeks (minus whatever span of time our parents hauled us on a cheap excursion in the back of the station wagon, family reunions or camping trips being prime exemplars of the genre). I don't need to go into the tired old stories about staying outside til the streetlights came on or playing neighorhood-wide games of Kick the Can, do I? If so, you can just read this and you'll have the general idea. Anyhoo, aside from signing us up for rec camp and swim lessons, I think my parents put approximately 0.03 minutes' worth of thought into what they were going to do with us kids over the summer months. If you'd asked them, they would have been mildly incredulous. What were we going to do? Whatever it was we did, of course. What that might be specifically wasn't really closely examined. We were expected to show up to swim lessons unless it was thundering, and if we were bored, we could go to the library; beyond that, we were left mostly to our own devices.
Fast forward ten okay, twenty way more years than we need to discuss, and the summertime situation is very, very different. Instead of my kids just doing stuff, I have to curate their summer experience. Everything needs to be scheduled or planned or arranged in some way. There is no pack of neighborhood kids roaming around looking for new participants, so if the girls want to see a friend, it takes several phone calls or texts to set it up. I can't let them go to the library because it's against the rules to leave kids younger than 11 there alone, and people are weirded out by the sight of a little kid walking around downtown alone. The town rec camp is an all-or-nothing deal for the whole summer, so the girls can't go for a week or two to fill in the gaps. We took a major vacation, so filling the whole rest of the summer with day camps isn't feasible. As a result, I find the girls are toggling between highs and lows - high spirits when they have a couple of days of something to do, irritable and whiny when their interactions are limited to one another and me.
I know there are numerous reasons why kids' summer vacation experiences have changed so much. The economy has changed, society has changed, and we can't put that particular genie back in the bottle. Still, some of reason has to do with our culture's shift to helicopter parenting and the widespread, unspoken assumption that kids can't take care of themselves and need constant monitoring. Why can't my 10 year old ride her bike the mile to the town library and spend an hour in the childrens' room? Why can't a couple of kids walk around the neighborhood without needing to check in with every parent multiple times via various devices? Why can't the girls take their allowance and walk downtown to buy an ice cream or a pack of gum on their own, without people assuming they're going to be kidnapped into white slavery and they should be under an adult's watchful eye? These are all things I did when I was the same age that my girls are now, but I can't even IMAGINE what it would be like to let my girls do these things on their own, and that's really sad.
I'd give anything to shoo my kids out to go ride bikes and hang with their friends for the day without having to set it up and make it happen. I'd gladly buy the gang a loaf of squishy white bread and jar of peanut butter to make themselves sandwiches if they'd stampede off to someone else's yard for the afternoon once they were done. I'd love nothing more than to plop a big box of popsicles on the picnic table and announce to whomever's around that they are welcome to eat all the ice pops, but they are not to set foot in my house with their muddy feet until dinnertime. I'd be thrilled to have to call around to find out whose house the girls inflicted themselves upon. Instead, it is all up to ME to sort out who's around, what there is to do, and how they're going to get there. As a result, on a slow day, I can't even sit down to read a book without the two of them descending on me wanting to know what I'm doing. Yes, they play together, and yes, they think of their own activities and pursuits, but even the most inventive kid gets tired of being alone with just a sibling to torment entertain themselves. So I wind up having to choose among orchestrating their social lives, entertaining them myself, or refereeing constant squabbling, all of which requires constant, direct involvement on my part.
So, fellow parents, what can we do about this? Can we set up some kind of rotating feral-child-fostering program, so that we families who are willing to let the kids run riot can put all our kids in one big pack and exile them outside for the day? Can we make some kind of identifying garment, like a sandwich board, on which we can write in big, bold letters, I KNOW WHAT MY CHILD IS DOING AND THERE'S NO NEED TO PANIC when our kids go out alone? Can we tell the librarian to let our kids come hang out once in a while, and it's perfectly fine by us to kick him or her out if s/he's being annoying or loud? Can we station one parent at the town pool who agrees to be the titular adult in charge for the afternoon, so the kids can swim themselves into a stupor with their pals while we get stuff done??? And can we set all this up in a way that we grownups are, at most, just background that passes mostly unnoticed, instead of being seen as the source of all entertainment? Just imagine how much more relaxed, refreshed, and rejuvenated we'd ALL be at the end of the summer if we could make this happen.
A weary fellow-traveler on this journey called parenting