My kids are at camp today. So are everybody else's kids. Which, whenever I think about it, is just weird. In the space of one generation, "summer" has taken on a whole new meaning. When I was a kid, summer was three full months of pure bliss--nothing to do, nowhere to go, endless hours to sleep or play house in the back yard or watch "Hollywood Squares." These days, any kid who is not in summer camp--or some kind of structured summer program--is either a) Amish or b) one very lonely kid. My kids would not know what to do if they were at home all day every day during the summer, but that's how my summers were, and I loved it. I am convinced that all that down time--and yes, there were boring stretches, too--fostered creativity in ways that kids today aren't getting.
One contemporary author (okay, it's me, and yes, I know this is gauche) put it this way:
"When we got in [my mother's] way, she shooed us out the door to play with the neighborhood kids, whose mothers had done the same with them, and the only rule was 'Be home by suppertime.' …This was not the manicured world of some affluent suburbia, either; we lived in a once-rural area that had almost, but not quite, been swallowed up by industrial development. My sister and I used to spend hours exploring the abandoned Aarmco Steel Plant not far from our house, poking sticks into vats of God knows what kind of toxic sludge....Mothers who would choose such an approach today—assuming they are not poor—would be viewed as being seriously inattentive to their children’s mental development. Which is just as well, because in practical terms, it’s no longer possible for most of us to take this approach. I can’t shoo my kids out the door to play with other kids because there are no other kids out there to play with. Every child in the neighborhood is booked in advance with play dates, museum trips, soccer, Tae Kwon Do, calligraphy classes, ballet lessons—you name it. In the afternoons and during the summer, the streets in my neighborhood are bereft of children except for those who pass by looking out the back windows of minivans, on their way to some appointment." (From The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children and Struggling with Depression , HarperCollins, publication date Aug. 1 but you can pre-order now on Amazon.)
Was I becoming another John Muir, cataloguing birds in all my leisure time? I was not. I saw a lot of second-rate movies on "Armchair Theater," which came on just after the noon news on WSB-TV (this was Atlanta); for awhile, I got engrossed in "Days of Our Lives," but lost interest when Doug and whatsername could never get out the door to Porto Fino, wherever that is. I made mud pies. I did some filing at the florist where my mother worked. I went to Vacation Bible School and made complicated structures with popsicle sticks. I watched thunderstorms. I disrupted anthills. And one afternoon, moved by some mutual sadistic impulse, my sister and I brewed some catnip tea (which was awful) and then tied the used teabag to the neck of the cat, who went beserk. Very few people have ever seen a cat climb a tree backwards, but I'm here to tell you it can be done.
Would it have been better if I had learned Drawing 101, which my nine-year-old is doing at this moment? I know what the Responsible answer is. Still, life is long, and drawing classes will always be around. But watching the cat go up the tree backwards--now, that's a once-in-lifetime thing. And I'm sorry my kids are missing it.