I spoke at a book club last week, an intensely personal experience that always leaves me feeling a bit like an orange whose peel has been partially whittled away, my soft, juicy underbelly showing.
Send me your sharpest questions.
Curiously, the topic we turned to first was the idea of summer. What summer means to us, as women ranging in age from mid-twenties to late sixties. We grew up in four decades, four decades worth of technological advances, parenting style evolutions, education methodologies. As many philosophies as hairstyles. But each of us agreed on one thing: Our childhoods had been devoid of all these. Together, we remembered hose water and how it didn’t kill us. Building forts (or camps, depending on who you asked) in the woods or the backyard. Staying outside playing wall ball, kick the can or capture the flag until the street lights came on, the fire whistle blew or a mother yelled for one of our party to get inside this instant. There were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Kool-Aid with white sugar, sticky fingers and unwashed, bare feet in grass potentially riddled with bees, snakes and helicopter-mother-knows what else.
It happens every year, around this time. Blogs come out wistfully bemoaning the loss of those summers. Keening over “kids these days” and how they spend those sultry days with their ever-expanding designer-clad butts parked in front of televisions, computers, a proliferation of screens telling them what to think, who to be. Technological substitutes for imagination. Think pieces wonder whether this generation’s air-conditioned summers will lead to less imagination, lower creativity, worse performance in school. If the structure we impose with endless camp enrollments, games with more rules than participants and heaven forbid, parental supervision, will stifle their independence, their little, still-squishy minds.
But I remember the summer camps of my childhood. At one, my best friend and I commandeered the craft cabin, pouring glue on construction paper on glitter, getting those little plastic sparkles so deeply embedded in our scalps, I would find remnants weeks after returning home. No counselor supervised us, or stayed out of our way and my memory. We mucked around to our heart’s content, and were. But I also remember another camp, when we were left to our own devices, a few kick balls and what seemed like miles of technicolor green grass. The other kids kicked it around halfheartedly for awhile, then scuffles broke out until counselors intervened, taught us dodgeball and games whose names and rules escape my recollection. I remember laughter, there. Exhausted feet at the end of the day and the cool darkness of comatose sleep.
A friend of mine has three kids, a 5-year-old boy and twin toddlers. The other night, she asked them to tell her a bedtime story, instead of doing the job herself. The oldest told her about swimming with pirates in a bright blue sea, wrestling octopus and befriending the fish. Her little girl talked about the castle she lived in as a princess, the prince who had to “swag” in order to win her heart. Unicorns grazed outside. And her youngest son, there were monsters, a Frankenstein and colors galore, visual wonderlands behind his mind’s eye.
I think these kids’ imaginations are going to be just fine.
And I also wonder if we’re not over-thinking our children’s summertime structure. If, by worrying it’s too full, too lacking in unsupervised, improvised play, we’re ignoring the fact that children will play in their own way, regardless of the circumstances. Whether they’re given non-GMO tuna fish on whole-wheat, co-op sourced bread or Jiff and Smuckers on Wonder, their eyes will be as bright with stars, when we tuck them under their covers. Children are marvelous creatures, with a capacity to grow we underestimate from the tunnels our vision squints through, more often than not.
So maybe, rather than comparing these sun-soaked days to those of our youth, to bemoaning the pasty-skinned (cancer-free, though) kids today, we can sit back, close our eyes and reminisce on the beauty we enjoyed, while acknowledging that theirs too, will someday be the stuff of different, but no less nostalgic dreams.