Doing It For Themselves

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adultraisebookWe’re midway through our summer vacation and the word “bored” has come up countless times already. For a generation of kids that has summer camp choices out the wazoo, I say, “you don’t know what being bored looks like!”

Perhaps by virtue of growing up at the beach, or by being raised in a family without bucketloads of disposable income, my friends and I learned how to occupy our time in the summer without intervention from our parents. If we dared to utter the “b” word, our parents would open the screen door and tell us not to get hit by it on our way outside. They didn’t arrange playdates for us before kicking us into the outdoors, either. And we certainly didn’t have to wonder if any of our friends would be “available”. We just walked (or biked —  gasp —by ourselves) around the neighborhood picking up friends along the way. We made our own fun. And it was fun.  

I know that our motivation for sending our kids to music lessons, writing and sports camps is that we want them to have opportunities that we didn’t have as kids ourselves in the hope that it will make them well-rounded and successful adults. But the reality is that kids raised with an overdose of parental involvement seem to lack the self-sufficient gene we had growing up, and it’s becoming a huge societal problem. It reminds me of that scene in Finding Nemo where Marlin tells Dory that he promised Nemo he’d never let anything happen to him. While Marlin thinks he’s just being protective, Dory points out how terrible it would be if nothing ever happened to Nemo.

Kids today do have an awesome number of excellent outlets for their natural curiosity and creativity. But if kids aren’t ever allowed unscheduled time to be alone with their thoughts, or hold a pen to paper, or just stare out the window and dream, how will they ever find their own inner voices? How will they learn what they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, what gifts they have to contribute to the world? All this over scheduling doesn’t allow kids the chance to test out theories, to make freaking mistakes from which to learn the valuable lessons about how to avoid them, how to fix them, and what making them can teach us.

I realize that I’m having all of these deep, radical thoughts while being a complete and utter  hypocrite. After dropping off my 10-year-old at the park for camp pick-up this morning, I stopped by a local cafe on our way home with my six-year-old son and almost three-year-old daughter. The cafe brilliantly has a huge box of soft foam blocks to keep younger kids entertained, ostensibly, while parents drink their lattes and read the paper. While my son happily constructed towers and skateparks and a water-based dragon defense-system, my two year old stared at the assorted shapes and froze. “Build something, Mama!” she commanded.

Since she’s kind of scary when she’s being bossy, I picked up a few blocks and showed her how to stack them together to make different shapes. I explained how to make walls and a ceiling, what shapes make good windows and doors, and various other components that go into building a house. Then I said, “Now, you make something”.

She picked up a few of the blocks, held onto them for about 30 seconds, and then hurled them across the room in frustration, shouting, “I can’t do it!!”

Well honestly, she didn’t even try. And what motivation does she really have, even, to give it a go on her own if she knows I’m going to do it for her in the end. This has played out in various ways with each of our children over the past few months.

After watching his sister deposit money she earned while babysitting into an actual bank account, my son was eager to know how he, too, could get in on this money-making business.

“You have to earn it,” I told him. “If you want the money, you have to do the work. And not complain about it the entire time.”

“Ok,” he said. “I’m in.”

Since our front yard is a pit of dirt and stones at the moment awaiting the transformational magic of a skilled landscape designer, I asked him to help me separate out the stones from the dirt using a shovel, colander, and bucket. I told him I would give him $5 for his hard work.

He lasted 10 minutes. And he didn’t exactly do a bang-up job during that limited timespan, either.

Now I know that my husband and I have basically created this situation ourselves. We’ve provided too much stuff, too many enrichment opportunities, stepped in to help too often for our kids to be able to think for themselves, come up with their own fun, and they will be worse off in the future for it.