Free the Children

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My daughters are upstairs shrieking. And thumping. Nothing sounds broken, so I am leaving them alone to savor the outlaw feeling of playing hooky from the afternoon session of camp. They know absences don't count against them on some Permanent Record somewhere.

I long for them to have a whole summer that doesn't matter. When they can read for fun, even books that don't appear on the officially sanctioned summer reading list. When even the outfielders get to play first base sometimes because the game doesn't count. When they can ruin their brand-new sneakers because they found a great new creek. When a rule can be bent, if only to test its strength, and they can play all they want, without playing for keeps.

Mind & Body Happiness
Jan. 17, 2004

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I want summer not to count because what happens as a result counts for so much. Maybe we adults idealize our own red-rover days, the hot afternoons spent playing games that required no coaches, eating foods that involved no nutrition, getting dirty in whole new ways and rarely glancing in the direction of a screen of any kind. Ask friends about the people and places that shaped them, and summer springs up quickly when they tell their story: their first kiss, first beer, first job that changed everything. The best summer moments were stretchy enough to carry us all through the year, which is why it's worth listening to all the warnings from social scientists about our Hurried Children who for the rest of the year wear their schedules like clothes that are too tight.

The experts have long charted the growing stress and disappearing downtime of modern children; now they say the trend extends across class and region. The combination of double shifts, shrinking vacations, fear of boredom and competitive instincts conspires to clog our kids' summer just as much as the rest of the year. Even camp isn't likely to be about s'mores and spud anymore: there is math camp and weight camp and leadership camp, as though summer were about perfecting ourselves, when in fact the opposite may be true.

That's because summer should be a season of grace — not of excuses but of exceptions, ice cream an hour before dinner just because it's so hot out, bedtimes missed in honor of meteor showers, weekdays and weekends that melt together because nothing feels like work. It's not just about relaxing; it's about rehearsing. All our efforts to guard and guide our children may just get in the way of the one thing they need most from us: to be deeply loved yet left alone so they can try a new skill, new slang, new style, new flip-flops. So they can trip a few times, make mistakes, cross them out, try again, with no one keeping score.

This may require some re-education, a kind of summer school of play that teaches kids not to expect to be entertained every moment, to adjust to days measured out not in periods or practices but in large clumps of opportunity called Morning and Afternoon. Go build a fort. Use every single art supply in the house to make something big. Be bored and see where it takes you, because the imagination's dusty wilderness is worth crossing if you want to sculpt your soul.

Giving children some summer privacy and freedom takes nerve, and not just because this is also precious time to be together as a family. Last summer, the Amber Alert summer, who could take their eyes off their kids in the front yard? When my 7-year-old was half an hour late coming home one afternoon and the lifeguards and counselors started asking me what she looked like, what she was wearing, I couldn't get enough air in my lungs to tell them, the fear was so strangling.

But when we finally found her, happily engrossed near Dead Man's Cave catching frogs with a friend, I had to take a deep breath and remember that maybe I had neglected to teach her to call home if she was going to be late, because I had never needed to. She is shuttled from school to playdate to soccer to chess, and only in the summer does she control her own time and whereabouts at all. Do I punish her for savoring liberty the first time she ever tasted it? So we had a long talk while sitting under a tree before I grounded her for a day.

We are bombarded with reasons to stay inside: we're afraid of mosquitoes because of West Nile and grass because of pesticides and sun because of cancer and sunscreen because of vitamin-D deficiency. Ours is the generation that knows too much, including what other kids are doing in the summer to get a head start in the marathon that ends with a fat envelope from a top school. So apart from the challenge of trusting our kids, there is the challenge of trusting ourselves, steering by the stars of instinct and memory rather than parent peer pressure or all those guidebooks on how to raise a Successful Child.

I send my girls out to play in the hope that by summer's end I will see the gifts that freedom brings. Kids seem four inches taller in September than in June, whether they've grown any or not. And the measuring stick is marked off in bruises healed and flags captured, friends lost and found, goals achieved without anyone's help. I hope for the discipline not to discipline them too much, because that's how I will learn how strong they have become.