Other than a girl I knew in grade school whose parents sent her to French class after school and a boy in the neighborhood who studied falconry on weekends, all the kids I grew up with had a lot of free time on their hands.
Not empty time -- the kind of time that television now routinely fills in a child's life -- but unplanned time that could be used in any way you saw fit: to daydream or explore the neighborhood or dress your cat in dolls' clothing or sit on the porch with a grandparent.
Although there was the occasional piano lesson or Scouts meeting scheduled into our daily lives, you might say we were not exactly the kind of kids described in the Wall Street Journal recently as "fast-track kids." Fast-track kids, according to the article, are usually the offspring of fast-track parents, a combination that adds up to exhaustion and frenzy in the fast-track family.
So many things for the kids to accomplish and so little time in which to do it. On Saturdays, for example, such activities as swimming, soccer, gymnastics, crafts, music lessons, ballet, Little League and art classes need to be fitted into the schedule. And then there's the social life that comes with being a fast-track kid.
"If they're not having a birthday party," one mother told the
Journal, "they're going to one."
And the payoff for all this activity? Well, here's the same mother's evaluation of the lifestyle of the young and the busy: "Some of it's fun. But we don't seem to savor anything. Frenetic is the only word I can think of to describe our pace."
But it was a father's comment that really drilled down and hit bedrock: "I worry that the children are too regimented and they don't get time to be kids."
When I read this I found myself trying to remember what exactly it was like to be a kid. What did I like? What did I fear? What did I need? In other words, what is it that really matters to kids?
I can tell you one thing: You won't find the answer by watching television or movies where kids are routinely portrayed as wisecracking, sophisticated, blase, cynical, critical, really stupid or so smart they can be left at home alone and not only take care of themselves but outsmart criminals. Heck, some babies on television are even capable of thinking complex thoughts and then verbalizing them in complete sentences.
But you might find at least part of the answer by diving back into your own childhood memories. I did. And, after some consideration, here is what I think mattered most to me when I was a kid.
One: Having a night light. Security is the name of the game here and it's not the night light that's important, it's what it stands for. Which is: having a parent or parents who act as night lights around the clock, providing you with a sense of security and a safe harbor from which to navigate the larger world.
Two: Not being told you are stupid or bad or will never amount to anything. Self-esteem begins at home and so does a sense of feeling accepted for what you are. The great prototype for how we eventually position ourselves in the world is the way we are treated as children by adults responsible for us.
Three: Having your mother cancel your dentist's appointment at the last minute. This mattered a lot to me as a kid because what it conveyed was spontaneity. Or to turn it upside down, I learned that life did not always have to be rigid and regimented, measured out, so to speak, in dental appointments. The spontaneous parent is the antithesis of the fast-track parent. Kids of spontaneous parents are more apt to be unhurried kids and, perhaps, more creative kids.
Four: Not being named Hortense or Olive. It's not that Alice is such a great name but it's an ordinary name -- one that doesn't set you apart. And more than anything else, kids want to be part of the crowd. It mattered a lot to me not to be made to wear geeky clothes or do things differently from other kids or hold my brother's hand when we walked to school. In grade school, hardly a week went by when I didn't drop to my knees in gratitude that it was a classmate, and not me, whose name was Etta (rhymes with Wetta).
Five: Having an audience. It was Margaret Mead who said that what children want most is an adult who will pay attention to them, who will listen to them, who will look at them and see who's inside. Someone who knows them well enough to know where they were yesterday, where they are today and where they need to be tomorrow.
Paying attention, of course, takes time. Traveling on a slower track, perhaps. But sometimes in childhood, as in traveling, just getting there is half the fun.