A few years ago, at the dinner table, I told my son, who was nearly six at the time, about a week-long day camp. I thought he would love it—he would get to take apart an appliance and make it into a brand new invention—something he already loves to do with his grandfather on a regular basis.
He glowered. “Camp?” he said. “But it will be summer! It’s supposed to be my vacation!”
I paused at this. I had thought he might be excited, but he shares his mother’s aversion to new experiences. He often will drag his feet about something new, but like me, finds he often enjoys it once he tries it.
My son pushed his food around on his plate, still concerned. And then it dawned on him. “What else do I have to do this summer?”
I thought about the art class, the swimming lessons, the soccer camp we were lining up for him. These are all activities he already likes, and we thought some structure would be good, especially since he’s accustomed to being in school four days a week already.
But then I wondered, is it too much? When I was growing up, I remember my parents mentioning a book whose title I have never forgotten, called “The Hurried Child.” I haven’t read this book, but from hearing my parents’ conversations I remember it had something to do with the societal pressure of parents to push their children too hard–both emotionally and academically.
Even before I had children, I had thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to raise a hurried child,’ who feels they must move from one activity to another, without a breath, without time to just relax and play.
I remember my childhood summers as long stretches of days with no agenda other than whatever my best friend and I dreamed up—mud pies, picnics, impromptu games of “Red Light, Green Light,” a trip to the library, or running through the sprinkler. On rainy days we pulled out some Mad Libs or listened to records. One day we transformed ourselves into ‘cleaning elves’ and randomly tidied up parts of the house, leaving a crayoned note to say ‘The Elves Were Here!’ (My husband has been waiting for over 10 years for this ‘cleaning elf’ alter ego of mine to return, to no avail.)
My friend and I might have complained about being bored at times, but somehow we always figured out something to do. Every day ended with a game of Frisbee with my dad, the lightning bugs pulsing and glowing around us. I don’t remember taking any structured classes or having many lessons. I remember feeling like I had all this time to stretch out and enjoy the summer.
Then I thought of the previous summer with our kids, when we spent time at our little cabin near the trout stream. One afternoon we pulled the kids around the property in a garden wagon. The kids were so happy that day, so joyous–so free. They found new flowers and asked me take pictures of each of them. I see the childhood I want for them—lots of time outside, time with family and friends, and simple pleasures.
But I struggle also with the idea, as the children grow, of nurturing those interests and talents and getting them off to a good start. I want both my son and daughter to find those things that they enjoy and be able to pursue them. As a parent, I want them to find things they are passionate about. If we don’t expose them to opportunities—music, arts, sports, etc.—will they find them on their own? While I don’t want to force my son to try something, I know he often needs a little nudge to get past that initial fear. And sometimes after pushing through that initial scariness, he finds he loves something—like the way now he feels about swimming.
How do we find the right balance—can we find the right mix of the lazy, unscheduled time with a little structure? Is it possible? I almost wish it were as neat as the formula I see printed on an energy bar—40% outdoor time, 30% creative play, 30% new experiences. Of course, it is not that simple, and our children are not packaged products, and I don’t want any child to be forced into one approach.
How can we nurture our children, give them free time and imaginative play, and also show them what else is out there? How can we ensure we don’t raise “hurried children?”
For now, we will take a closer look at the summer schedule and do some editing to ensure there’s plenty of time for picnics and ‘smores at the cabin.
As my son reminded me that night, once he turns six, he’ll never be five years old again.
Alexandra White lives in a tiny town in Northeast Iowa with her husband, son and daughter. By day she works for a large IT company, and by evening and weekend, she enjoys cooking, writing, and getting lost in the woods with her family. She tracks her family’s adventures at her blog, Talleygilly.