By Jami Ingledue — BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES
Mommies and mimosas. That’s my idea of parenting in the summer. (Daddies also welcome, but alliteration is more fun.)
Here’s the idea: come to our house. Bring swimsuits and some food if you want to. I’ll provide the mimosas. We’ll throw some grapes and cheese on the table for the kids and call it lunch. I will not do much cleaning before. The kids will run in the sprinkler, splash in the kiddie pool, climb on the playset, chase each other with sticks, play in the dirt, find weird bugs, make up their own games, and inevitably occasionally throw sand at each other. In other words, all the things that make summer fun.
My personal policy for these gatherings: kids play, mommies chat. No, I will not push you on the swing or play in the sand with you. That’s what the other kids are for. Now go play, Mommy’s talking to her friends.
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it sounds like our own childhoods, in which our moms locked us out of the house so they could get stuff done or chat with friends around the kitchen table. My favorite memories of summer are riding bikes around the neighborhood with friends, playing on the railroad bridge, jumping in the haymow of my friend’s barn, wading in the creek, and trying to catch crawdads.
And then there are those golden summer days which stand out, which sparkle and shine in my memory: days in which we entered into long, elaborate imaginative worlds or games. Carrying rocks to build a walkway over the creek. Digging tunnels under the railroad tracks and building (and destroying, of course) entire tiny communities with matchbox cars and plastic soldiers. Playing tag and hide and seek until it was too dark to see each other. Building “secret” hideouts in the woods. Deep, imaginative, involved play with other kids that lasted for hours and hours.
Don’t get me wrong. We also spent days at the pool, the zoo, the amusement park, the beach. My mom absolutely took us to do fun stuff that completely revolved around us. And we participated in summer camps and educational workshops.
But those aren’t the days I remember most.
And so it makes me deeply happy to see my son so engrossed in play with his friends, in the hole he is digging, in observing the weird caterpillar he found. To see my daughter cantering up the sidewalk, plastic horse in hand, pausing to neigh and paw the ground, before galloping off. Completely absorbed.
We get so caught up in scheduling our kids in age-appropriate activities, in stimulating their brain development, that we forget that the best thing we can do for them is to lock them out of the house. To say, no, I will not entertain you, go find something to do. Boredom is the blank canvas for imagination. Boredom is a requirement for creative growth.
It is not my job to constantly entertain my kids. It is my job to provide a safe, nurturing environment, and a stable, loving relationship. If I constantly provide entertainment, they will be robbed of the chance to explore and learn and grow. And that’s the purpose of play, of humans’ extended childhoods, longer than any other animal’s. To explore, to learn, to try new things and see what works and what fails. To grow in imagination and adaptability. If we constantly give them perfectly structured, age-appropriate, adult-monitored activities, they do not get this opportunity.
And anyway, kids can sniff out fake a mile away. My son has always preferred a real activity that he can do with us over a “play” equivalent. He comes running when daddy opens his toolbox, and will enthusiastically “help” for hours; he has zero interest in the many play tools we got him. Not that he doesn’t love pretend play, he does. But I’ve always been fascinated by how much he prefers to work on a real project, to help in the garden, to disassemble a swingset, to fix something in the house. The real world provides an endless parade of fascinations. But if kids are accustomed to only engaging with the world in the context of shiny plastic worlds created solely for their amusement, they might not be able to recognize the fascinating world right under their feet. Childhood is inherently magical; we don’t have to make it so.
And it’s not that we don’t “play” with our kids sometimes. But parents should enjoy the play too. Our kids don’t need us to be martyrs, dutifully serving their every whim and cleaning up after them; they need to see us happy, connected with others, and engaged in our lives. So we try to make sure our summer fun also includes fun for the grown-ups. (Cue the mimosas.) Casual pot-luck parties, with plenty of beer, and whatever food we can all rustle up, while the kids run around and get dirty and have the time of their lives.
We don’t always do a great job of making time for lazy fun. But we are all happier and more satisfied when we do.
Research has proven over and over that what kids need most is free play; it is truly the “work” of childhood. So parents, take a break from the structured activities. Come on over to my messy house, bring some food if you can, don’t forget the swimsuits. Crack open a beer and let the kids run wild. If it’s cool enough later maybe we’ll have a fire. It’s educational, I promise.
Originally published at thewildword.com.