We’ve all read the article by now about giving our kids that ’80s summer we so enjoyed as children. Now there’s this article:
What does happen when we try to give our kids the summers we had?
I feel a lot of guilt that my kids DON’T experience the kind of carefree, play-all-day summers I did! I feel like they are missing out on a lot of important learning that takes place when they are allowed to have the independence and freedom that I did during those longs breaks from school. I worry about how they are going to become self-sufficient, independent adults if they don’t 18 solid years of gradual experience in becoming so. It’s not really something you can shove into the last 3 or 4 years of adolescence and hope for success! It takes a long time to become an adult.
When I was a kid, my territory was huge! At home in Toronto, I had full city blocks in which I was allowed to roam on my bike. I walked to school by myself (well, not by myself usually, there was a whole hoard of us children together, but no adults!). I played at the local playgrounds unsupervised (as did every other kid, maybe there would be a parent or two of preschool children present). I knew all the cool and secret places where I was likely to find my friends.
I spent my summers on a farm. There was a lot of work to be done, starting at dawn. We worked for about three hours, then we needed to return to work around 4pm, but the rest of the day was ours! We roamed the forest and the gullies. We built secret forts, played in the barn, road trikes down large hills. We splashed in the creeks and swam in the ponds. We talked and picniced, and had fantastic games. We had about 200 acres to roam and call our own. We left no rock unexplored! It was a wonderful experience. Sometimes we returned for lunch–but not usually, we often packed it with us.
One of the cornerstones of my parental literature has been Richard Louv‘s Last Child in the Woods. In this book Louv talks about staggering divide between children and the outdoors. It is the first book to bring together a new and growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
We are biological creatures and our bodies have evolved with certain expectations. Our current lifestyles in houses and cars, with convenient technologies etc, is not the environment our bodies and minds evolved in, and our physiology has not caught up (nor is it likely to). Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to live in a comfortable house with easily accessible food, and technology like the internet etc! All I am saying is that this is not the biological expectation of our physiology, and when the body and mind don’t get enough of the proper stimulations, things tend to go a bit wonky. This is especially so for children who are developing so rapidly, and learning so fast.
So, given what I know and how I feel about it, why don’t my kids get an ’80s summer? Well, society isn’t really set up for it anymore. Our neighborhood is like a ghost town most days. There aren’t kids to play with, and houses to go to. There aren’t other mums at home, keeping an eye out for the neighborhood kids, and occasionally handing out popsicles on hot days to all the kids. There aren’t the retired couples on every street, who know everyone and everyone’s business (while annoying, at least they know what your kids are up to!). Gone are the treehouses, forest forts, secret-bike paths to magical places like cemeteries and gravel pits.
The basic infrastructure is just not there anymore. As children, we were never truly alone in the world–there was always a responsible adult (who probably knew our parents) nearby to help (whether we wanted it or not). Now we really would be sending our kids out into the world alone. That’s not a good feeling at all!
The Village has turned into something else entirely. You’re wandering children seem more likely to be picked up by police and taken to social services than to be given a popsicle by your friendly neighbors. Some people claim the world is not what it used to be, it’s much more dangerous today. That is in fact completely false! We have never lived in safer times, despite the barrage of headlines telling us of all the evils in the world around us. We may feel it is less safe, but statistically it safer than it ever has been!
So, what to do? Luckily Louv’s book does give some practical advice about getting your kids outside and more independently connected to nature. For my part, I follow much of that. I also take my kids camping, hiking, & kayaking, and I follow a clear freedom:responsibility ratio. The more responsibility they demonstrate, the more freedom they achieve.
I do allow my kids to play outside unsupervised. They have very clear boundaries and instructions on what they can and cannot do. They know what to if a situation becomes uncomfortable, or they are unsure of what to do. When they ask to go outside they always hear, “Take the dogs with you!” I know my dogs would bark a blue streak if anyone known or unknown came onto our property, and the husky for sure wouldn’t let anyone near the kids without me knowing about it. Luckily their boundaries include not only our yard, also some woods. It’s not as much as I think it really needs to be, but it’s what I can do.
Also, when we go to parks or other community spaces, I step back–waaaaay back. I’m there to answer questions and give guidance, but I’m not there to play with or manage the play of my kids. They are there to play with other kids and work out their own games, and resolve their own problems. Sure, if a real fight breaks out, I will intervene. If my kid won’t give your kid their sand shovel back and they can’t resolve it, I will call my kid over and offer guidance. But to be honest, when your kid takes my kid’s shovel and won’t get it back, I’d prefer my kid and your kid figure out how to handle the situation themselves. I tend to talk about any issues I noticed in a kind of debriefing after the park visit.
We are lazier in the summer. We do watch more TV and we do lounge around in our PJs until noon at least a few days a week. Why not? What’s the rush? We also have summer camps planned (my kids pick what they want to do). We have soccer and softball. We go on camping trips nearly every other week (where they actually have more freedom, since no one is in a big hurry to do much of anything, there are other kids close by and everywhere and everyone is just outdoors all the time).
So, in essence, we try to achieve a balance between this modern world and the world I remember from childhood.