Free Range Children…Forget it…I’m Learning Lessons the Hard Way

Valuable lessons of the past

I think that most of us can attest to having a decent childhood, despite not having our parents or an adult leading everything and engaging at every possible moment. I’m betting that your fondest memories don’t include an adult hovering over you! The anecdotes of our past have provided us with the laughs and lessons we reflect upon as we age. Did we learn anything? You better believe it! Don’t stick your tongue to metal in winter, make sure you have more than enough space between Mom’s shit brown 1985 Buick Skylark and the garage when whizzing by on your bike (that one earned me stitches), and if you’re mean to both of your younger siblings, they will eventually get smarter and team up, to hand you the beat down you deserve. All those lessons!!

Being kind and including others provides friendships, being mean gets you excluded, and learning to stand up for yourself and others strengthens your confidence while the bullies learn not to be assholes…sometimes. In this day, the adults step in before kids feel, problem solve or learn any of these things. Learning the hard way sometimes, is the only way to reinforce those ideals. What we’re doing today certainly isn’t working in my opinion, although I do agree that intervening when bullying becomes extreme is a must. We, as adults, have much to change as well, but that too, is a whole other topic in itself.

We start our kids in organized anything right from the womb. Mom groups, play groups, different classes at young ages at recreation centers, sports, art and music classes, crayon counting 101, speaking Pekingese to your 12 week old fetus and many, many other things. All that structure and organization. Whatever happened to just playing?

My mom didn’t always have the time to play with my siblings or I every single day either and I don’t resent that at all. I treasure the time that she did have for us, but it was never expected and it had no negative impact on my development. I guess what I am saying is this, bring back the play, the creativity and the relationship development without constant adult intrusion and structure. It was better for us as a civilization, I think.

…I realized that trucking them all over the country for an organized sport, had had the opposite impact that one might expect.

If we were bored, we invented, created or busied ourselves. Now, kids whine, insist you have to play with them and of course, WiFi and electronics seem to be the remedy for many. Just go to a restaurant and tell me I’m wrong.

When Lola was 5 and playing hockey, the team went out for lunch between games and I thought it’d be great because she’d get to know her teammates. Boy was I wrong! Not one kid sat and talked to the other. They all had some sort of game or phone to play on. My kids were the only ones sitting there without, because Clem and I never gave them our phones. And the other reason was because they weren’t allowed to bring any of their games (our kids didn’t get tablets until they were older) or even use them at the table. I know, I’m not with the times, and in fact, my kids are not as advanced with the technology, but still!! I couldn’t believe it!

When my girls have anyone over, I find that all they do is sit with whatever electronic device they have, doing their own thing, or watching mindless junk. They hardly speak to one another, and have no interest in engaging in an actual activity or even each other. What the hell is this? I have a whole treasure trove of activities in my house, it’s bursting, but every kid seems to be bored that visits. Go figure. I’m thinking of just getting rid of it all now.  Sad thought really, because what I wouldn’t have been doing with what kids have today…scary.

Free range children

My kids are actually a bit different I suppose. Once we wrapped up the chaotic sporting schedule last spring, they were so excited to get outside and play with all of the neighborhood kids. The first week, I realized that trucking them all over the country for an organized sport, had had the opposite impact that one might expect. They spent more time riding in a vehicle to said activity, followed by standing around during much instruction time instead of play time, and also, eating on the road. All of which, lead to a deterioration of their physical fitness.

I believe in home cooked family meals, but when you’re on the road right after school until 8:30 at night, it’s difficult to fulfill those aspirations. My kids were out of shape at the end of a very vigorous season whereby they were active 5 days a week in a structured extracurricular activity. Isn’t that something? I am so happy to be out of that insanity right now.

My kids play with other kids in our neighborhood, and they’re all different ages and from different walks of life and they absolutely love it. They go out after school and I can’t get them to come in at night! A welcomed struggle! The kids aren’t all compatible, but they still work together and get along. They’re usually all included and I often see a wide variety of games or other forms of entertainment taking place. They’ve taken the time to get to know one another and be mindful of their differences.

When they have disagreements, some run home to Mama, and of course, Mama comes out and reads the riot act to the other kids. If Mama would stay out of it, the child would see that s/he needs to consider their actions because s/he isn’t always cooperative and the kids get fed up (I’ve personally been on the receiving end of this child’s wrath). Countless other times, I’ve watched the kids learn to work it out on their own. Step out Mama, it was a minor disagreement which required the kids to cooperate and compromise and yours just wouldn’t budge. Let them learn please.

Let them get dirty, eat the dirt, lick the dog, stick their tongues to a metal post in winter (well, maybe not the greatest idea but you see where I’m going) and learn to figure things out.

I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I just feel that more of the unstructured provides benefits that the structured doesn’t. And, you should know, I played a sport at a very competitive level as a teenager. That said, I know and understand how important fun, spontaneous play and self developed passion truly are. I wouldn’t have played at a national level without it. I have hope, that society will eventually become aware and maybe revert a little, to help further our future together. In the meantime, I am so happy we made the decision to opt out of the crazy, and give our kids the opportunity to just be kids and develop into well rounded human beings.

I say, bring out the boards, hammers, nails, pails, dip nets, paintbrushes, extra sheets to make the theater, ball gloves, and road hockey sticks and let them play by themselves or with other kids spontaneously. Let them get dirty, eat the dirt, lick the dog, stick their tongues to a metal post in winter (well, maybe not the greatest idea but you see where I’m going) and learn to figure things out.

And when they want you to watch their plays, show you their art, or demonstrate their new wicked brand of curve ball that’s been developed without any adult structure, organization or leadership, relish in their discovery. I remember making my parents/grandparents/family members suffer through some of my horrid theatrical productions. In fact, they are all often subjected to my crafty creations at any given holiday or celebration! Encourage them to seek out what they love and foster that growth. These will eventually become tools for them in the future. A coping mechanism, when the stresses of everyday life seep in, or even the confidence of having enough skill for whatever activity that may be required to join in a social group, not to mention their future careers.

I’m not saying to celebrate mediocrity either, because we’ve been doing far too much of that, it seems to be expected. Instead, I’m encouraging mine to keep growing and challenging themselves. Don’t be afraid to step out and change it up. Kids can keep themselves busy, if we let them. And, we can enjoy our precious time with our kids without emptying the energy bank on a constant basis. They grow up way too fast and I notice that I too, am growing old fast.

Regrets and life’s difficult lessons

I regretted giving up my Sunday morning ‘Church of Mom’ breakfasts that we all looked forward to all week, while running at the crack of dawn to yet another freezing cold arena. The kids, and ourselves, would be exhausted from the busy week we’d had, sometimes sick or feeling under the weather. Or in good ol’ Canadian fashion, begrudgingly having to leave the house in a bitter -40C cold snap, which would invoke the fighting about not wanting to go or just wanting to curl up and watch a movie later in the morning after a restful sleep. Most days, my kids weren’t overly enthusiastic about playing.

One of my biggest regrets, was either being too busy or too exhausted to have more time with Lea and her family. I will never get a second chance to make up for that one. When the girls reminisce about missing their aunt and regretting not spending more time, I feel guilty. We’d kept participating for our kids sanity, but all it did was put our dealing with everything on hold. It’s too late now, but my priorities were screwed. I’ve learned my lesson far too late.

I hated fighting with my family when we were trying to hustle out the door. We’d all end up in a row, and be pissy and frustrated for the next few hours or longer, and that was just stupid and unnecessary. That’s not the kind of relationship I want to have with my kids, nor the memories I want to remember. I can’t even begin to tell you how that affected all of us while we were dealing with the three-ring circus that was our life. No time or energy to think about or deal with it at all. Tabling your emotions for another time. That was far from what we should’ve been doing. I hope you can understand where I am going with all of this.

I understand, it’s the ‘Canadian way’ (it’s not my way any more)…but, was it the same 50 years ago? Not even close. Kids were driven by passion, heading out to a pond or rink not far from home, to play the impromptu games that went from sun up to long past sun down. There was no hurried rushing of families to get out the door, kids yes, the rest of the family, no. Disagreements were settled among the players mostly fairly (or no one would play with you), healthy rivalries developed, and skills and plays only dreamed of displayed daily. The motivation and dreams to become better than the best kid out there or even just going out to be part of a team has become an overthought complex sport model, now in the form of organized sport.

…I see the spark.

Much of this is gone. There aren’t the ponds, or even enough outdoor arenas for kids to gather, that’s one of the biggest differences. And, even if we have such places, kids aren’t usually allowed to stray too far to get to them on their own. I won’t even get into how much it costs monetarily!! I feel that the time commitment is just as steep! I’ve coached for a number of years and it blows my mind that people don’t seem to realize that some of us work on our volunteer coaching at home, after hours. Add that to your travel time and time with the kids. Time isn’t something you can buy or get back, need I even say this?

Nowadays, it’s kids, driven by parents, to an arena how many miles away, with their entire lives packed into a mini van because you have six other coordinated activities squished into your day, followed by family or friendly gatherings of some sort much later in the evening that you can’t miss, because it’s all about balance, am I right? Even having to take days off of work to go to tournaments that start early on Friday mornings, I don’t often remember that being a common occurrence. I don’t miss that chaos. I do agree with diversification of skills, but when you join one extracurricular, they never seem to jibe time wise to accommodate each other. Organized chaos.

Yes, many kids have the excitement and the passion similar to the past, but now it’s become a major mandatory family event with a ton of volunteer time and guided instruction, thought process and inspiration. Where’s the opportunity for your child to grow and develop their own personal love of the game? Maybe I’ve overlooked it somewhere? Maybe it’s in the back of my minivan beneath all of the other ‘stuff’ and the other contents of my life for the next 8 or so years that I have back there?

My kids occasionally enjoyed their sporting days, but I just found that their passion for it wasn’t developing, like mine had and maybe that’s my fault. Clem and I have finally realized that just because we did things a certain way in our childhood, it needn’t dictate our parenting. I want them to have this feeling of motivation, passion and a love of something, and the only way to do that, is to revert and let them discover it themselves. That takes time and contemplation and being rushed around all the time, isn’t a conducive environment for that.

I’m looking forward to putting in a skating rink in the backyard to foster my kids’ love of their game, and to see where they take it. I am not going to wear the ‘Director of Passion’ hat. I discovered mine all on my own. They begged us to consider doing this, so I see the spark. They’re already excitedly contemplating the teams they’re going to make out of all of the neighborhood kids. They’re talking about how we should construct such a masterpiece, and how much they’re going to enjoy being able to skate whenever they want. I am ecstatic to see this life and enthusiasm starting to grow. Who are these children?

For as much time as the organized sports/activities consumed, never once did I hear this much excited chatter. I’m really excited for them and look forward to enjoying time with them out on that little piece of ice. I anticipate that my relationship with them will change, and for the better. I don’t always want to be seen as the maid, chauffeur, coach or activity coordinator, I think it’s time for them to know me. This is my chance, and I am going to immerse myself in it whenever I can. It’s an entirely different world than what they’ve been accustomed to and the shift to a balanced life has never been more welcome.

It’s truly the simple things in life. I believe it was best put when someone said, keep it simple stupid. I’ve enjoyed sipping my hot afternoon coffee at my leisure, my kids are happy, and have found things to keep themselves thoroughly entertained outside. They have much to look forward to in the coming weeks. There’s no rush to get out the door, and Clem will be home to enjoy dinner with the family shortly. Everything feels right, just within this little moment.

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