Mothers whose children were young decades ago fondly recall summer days when they locked their children outside. Not everyone resorted to these measures; but for many mothers, they remember sending their children down to the neighborhood pool where they might see them around midday when the mothers got together for a picnic lunch. Other than that, they wouldn’t be seen for hours on end.
“Child abuse!” is the immediate accusation from many of us upon hearing about such summer survival strategies. How could the mothers be so negligent? What did they do all day? How could they? The rest of us wonder where we have to move to live this way.
If you talk to the same children, now grown, who were pushed out of the house with a firm admonition not to come back until dark, many of them had no experiences of neglect, abuse, or harm. They had marvelous summers—summers chock-full of memories that will last a lifetime. There were all the ordinary summer activities: bike riding, popsicles, swimming, kickball, summer jobs, and getting bored. There were also the games and stories unique to each group of children; little rituals that developed out of the open opportunity to do whatever you wanted that didn’t get you into serious trouble.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This was far from idle time. This was the life-changing experience of finding real fun in a season of the year with fewer expectations, more independence, and the prospect of endless hours of evening light and expansive vistas of ocean waves, rivers, or pools. This is the type of unstructured time that gives us a foretaste of eternity.
In many neighborhoods now, with fewer children and more mothers working office jobs, you will find nary a child wandering around in boredom on a Tuesday morning in July. Where have they gone? Often, the answer is a bad one: camps. In many neighborhoods now, with fewer children and more mothers working office jobs, you will find nary a child wandering around in boredom on a Tuesday morning in July. Where have they gone? Often, the answer is a bad one: camps.Tweet This
Now, don’t mistake me, summer sleepaway camp is its own legendary experience, the basis of many an excellent summer. Campers recall “the sense of remoteness and freedom, of dwelling in a land beyond the jurisdiction of helicoptering parents, of being left to settle your own feuds, fight your own fights, solve your own problems. Independence. Becoming an adult.” Those experiences are precisely what make summer spectacular for children.
That sense of independence at summer camps of yesteryear is the same feeling of summer boredom at home that so many people experienced and treasure in their memory. The common thread of summers past was independence and a sense of endless time. What can, at first, be the thrilling prospect of absolutely nothing to do can quickly become a miserable exercise in angst and bickering. However, for the young person who masters the unstructured day of free time, there is the invaluable sense of autonomy and personal responsibility.
It is in times of leisure that we learn to move beyond simply doing task after task to the experience of being. In that state, there is often flow, a sense of being outside time, finding immediate and immersive presence in a hobby, a book, or a moment of beauty.
When can a child today find such liberated hours? The prospect of hot time languishing at home or the reality of both parents working regular, full-time hours pushes many families to sign Junior up for one camp after another. You will find few conventional summer camps in most suburban environs today that offer the electrifying experience of independence. The days are regimented, glorified summer school with occasional water play. Granted, even these camps are better than huddling in the air conditioning staring at the glowing iPad screen; but surely, we can aim a bit higher.
Our surrender of summer as a golden time to soak up a life of being instead of doing to the workaday demands of the 40-hour week is a grave disservice to children. With vanishingly few opportunities to exercise independence, the demise of summer means there is, for many young people, one less chance to bask in an image of eternity.
Just as we have neglected the weekly Sabbath, our seasons are without rhythms of rest. Switching from the tired routines of the school year to the open space of summer should be a relief. Instead, in our anxiety and unfamiliarity with leisure, we opt to chop up the time into measurable weeks at robotics camp, music camp, art camp, volleyball camp. Some camps are good and worthy opportunities for enthusiasts to converge. Camps for the sake of filling the time are a sad substitute for real summer.
Before signing up for a slew of regimented summer camps, consider if the camps are actually fun. They might seem mildly interesting or pleasant, but are they fun? Is there playfulness, meaningful connections with other people, opportunities to slip into a state of flow?
As much as we are loath to admit it, the conditions most conducive to fun are not camps and adult-run activities but boredom and independence. Parents shrink at the prospect of bored children, annoying and quarrelsome as they are. And yet, without a good steady dose of boredom now and again, our children will not have the chance to make up their own great fun that will live in memory for the rest of their lives.
Constrained as we are—or appear to be—by our culture’s two-income trap and treatment of children as mini-adults, we can still facilitate the experiences that make summer more than just a time of year that is hot. The best inspiration? Remembering how we spent our summers, including some endless, golden days that far too many children today have yet to experience.