Child’s Play

The house is silent. Sunlight streams in through the bare branches of the trees.  I stop shuffling around our toy room and take in the view for a moment.

My attention turns to the blocks on the floor. This is the final pile of toys that I need to put away in my effort to clean up my children’s toy room. Generally I ask them to keep this room tidy, but occasionally the Clean-up Elves visit.  Today is my kids’ lucky day. I’ve been focusing on organizing, containing, shelving and purging.  But in front of these blocks I rest.

The space that surrounds me looks like an ad for The Container Store again, expect for this pile of primary-colored wood in front of me.

In this moment, I have no particular place to be aside from in front of these blocks. I pick one up, truly feeling it for the first time in ages. I feel the corners and smooth sides against my palm and the pads of my fingers. The weight of their mass evokes an impression of sturdiness. I perceive the potential… how many things you can do with these blocks.

I line them up according to their size.

I line them up according to their shape.

I pile them together according to their color.

I put blue and yellow together. I make a checkerboard pattern with the red and blue cubes.

How far can I stack these blocks into the upper reaches of the room?

I build a pile that creates a rocky hill for a tiny imaginary woman to climb. I have never scaled such a landscape, but the lady in my mind will.

Children recreate the world as they see it and want to see it with these blocks. They lose themselves when they need to and when they can. And they “live” in those blocks. Why don’t adults do the same thing?

My children grab five minutes before walking out the door for their play. We hear often how important it is for children to discover through creative activity. Why does it stop in adulthood? Why is it not essential to our development? After all, we are still growing.

I am convinced that our generative abilities are the source of value in our contributions, even moreso in an era where machines can handle a lot of things. Why do we not nurture that through things as simple as these wooden blocks?

My mountainous pile is done, and the clear plastic shoe box that holds these blocks sits to the side. It is time for me to put them all neatly in this organizational vessel. Instead, Ileave them in the sunlight and walk away.

What does the JC Penney t-shirt debacle say about us?

I must admit that in the 80s, I thought the world was a pretty shallow place… at least the world I lived in.  But, this JC Penney “I’m too pretty to do my homework…” t-shirt is something else.  Loads of posts on Facebook, tweets, comments on blogs, etc. reflect the outrage and/or disappointment many feel in the retailer’s judgement to even sell such an article of clothing.

But, the folks at JC Penney didn’t intend to offend, nor were they ignorant of what the t-shirt said.  They were stocking their inventory with something they thought would sell.  And, what does it say about JC Penney’s opinion of today’s parents and daughters that they went to the trouble of putting this t-shirt in their line?  The prognosis — nothing good.

Obviously, stocking such a t-shirt was poor judgement.  I’m sure there are entire departments of individuals currently having a very bad day at JC Penney.  But, what made them hedge in the first place on the side of including this in their fall line?  I’m sure these decisions are not made lightly, and I can’t imagine that this didn’t catch the attention of at least someone of authority at JC Penney before this PR nightmare hit.

Fortunately, we have some outspoken consumers to set this retailer — and perhaps others — straight on this issue.  As much as some young girls like fashion and frills, they (nor their parents) are ready to give up the possibility that they might become neurosurgeons someday.  At least that’s the case for everyone who didn’t buy this t-shirt.  And I wonder how many did.

They Call It “Free Range” Parenting These Days

I introduced the term free range parenting to a friend of mine a few years back, and she rolled her eyes.  “Come on!” she said with such passion that you would think it was some sort of insult to her parenting skills, if she was, in fact, a parent.  Rather, I think it just seemed ridiculous to her to that people would use a term associated with livestock practices to describe a child-rearing philosophy.

I frequently call free range parenting “seventies-style parenting,” because that’s the last time I am aware that kids were able to come-and-go from their homes at their leisure.

I have fond memories of being four years old and leaving our yard to visit the massive saint bernard down the street who was so friendly that he piled on top of one of the neighborhood three-year-olds and nearly suffocated her.  Yes, we were quite a posse — a group of kids ranging in age from two to five — finding all sorts of ways to perplex my mother.  She finally padlocked our back gate after my brother trapped himself between a storm door and the main door in our neighbors’ back yard to avoid a bee.  Because he was two, he was unable to navigate the latch to get himself out, and it took a while for my mom to figure out where his helpless muffled cries were coming from.

That is the kind of stuff of seventies childhood legend.  Today, I wouldn’t even let a two-year-old on our back porch, let alone out of our yard.

Fast forward to earlier this summer when I tried my hand at free range parenting at my parents’ home on a lake in Northeast Indiana.  It seemed a good place to do so.  I was in the “back” yard (opposite of the lake side), and my children and a neighbor were playing in the expansive, well-maintained lots across the low-traffic lane fully within my sight but far enough not to be able to hear me unless I really pushed the sound from my diaphram.  So, I could keep tabs on them, but I could not be held responsible for solving their dilemmas, since telling them what to do would require me to move, and I was perfectly happy where I was.

It was a beautiful evening.  With the responsibility of micromanaging them off my shoulders, I could take in the full sensory experience of the time and place.  The sun was still high in the sky, its brightness was softened by its slow evening descent.  The air was still, and all I could hear were faint sounds of inflection from my children’s play down the lane.

“If there is such a thing as peace…” I began to say to myself when I saw my daughter throw a ball at my son’s head.  She seemed to be upset that he was infringing upon her time with the neighbor girl.  After my daughter resumed her play, my son retaliated by coming over and shaking her off the exercise ball she was sitting on.  He then pushed her down, and when she wouldn’t get up, turned his back and resumed his play.

“Nope, not this time,” I thought.  “I am free range parenting right now, and they are going to learn how to solve this one themselves.”

After about a minute, my daughter rose and apparently decided it wasn’t very useful to take on my son again.  She and the neighbor began to move to lots farther down the lane, leaving my son behind.  Of course, he caught up to them, and they began to move farther again.  Now, they were on the corner lot, right next to the main road — a winding country road with a 40 mph speed limit.  When they kicked the ball across that road and began to cross to get it, the free range parenting abruptly ended.

I stood from my cross-legged-in-the-grass position, shouted to them to come back toward our yard and began to cross the lots with purpose.  When we met at that corner lot, they began to tell me all of the things the other did, and my daughter claimed that she had to move toward the corner to get away from her brother.  We ended up back at my parents’ house, and the neighbor girl needed to go home.

So much for my free range parenting.  It lasted a whole five minutes.  In the seventies, would my children, ages eight and six, be supervised on any level in this scenario?  Probably not.  I suppose if I wanted to truly be a successful free-range parent, I would have turned my back or even gone inside.  But that would be too much for a millennial mom.

It’s All About Perspective

The other day, I was stopped several cars back from a stoplight at an intersection near one of our city’s selective enrollment high schools.  As usual, the kids paid little attention to the crosswalk and floated among the stopped cars, choosing whatever crossing spot was most convenient to their starting point.  It was one of those times when I realized how “grown up” I had become.

A group of six boys, likely about 16 years old, walked in front of my car.  Among the guys with pimply faces and awkward fashion was one very cool kid.  He was the most confident among them — with a smooth walk, clear complexion and chilled out demeanor.  And, he was the only one smoking a cigarette.

As a teenager, that cigarette would have essentially been invisible to me.  I would have admired all of his coolness and ignored his short-comings.  I didn’t smoke as a teenager, but there was no way a bad habit like that would get in the way of my admiration.  My impression is that these days, with decades of additional warnings about smoking health hazards and, now, stigma, people perceive smoking as a far greater offense than they did in the mid-80s.

And, from my grown-up perspective, that cigarette was a concerning flaw.  This is probably a kid with the charisma to set an example.  What a missed opportunity it is for him to set this one!

And a few years from now, when my daughter enters high school, will this guy be something else all-together?  Will my daughter see through the charms of a teenage boy who can pull off wearing capris when he is smoking a cigarette?  And is he such a bad kid for doing so, or just misguided like so many other young guys from previous generations?  In the words of the supergroup Asia, I suppose only time will tell.