My youngest child turned two in June. Like all toddlers, he is a handful, however his toddlerhood is a bit different than that of his older two siblings. When I compare them at his age, he definitely gets the least of adult attention, simply because, as our family grew, so did the chores and responsibilities. My middle child was born prematurely, which led to his several (minor) health issues, including a wide array of food allergies, and that means we have to prepare almost all of our meals from scratch. It may be good for our health, but it is definitely not good for my to-do list. My eldest is in fourth grade, and this is the first year of her homeschooling. A wonderful experience for both of us, but again – it puts a lot of strain on my timetable.
As a result, my boys regularly experience stretches of unsupervised, unstructured time. I take care to maintain our living room in a state safe for exploration, and to provide them with lots of attractive activities they can choose from: Beautiful books and puzzles, Play-Doh, stickers, toy cars and trains and tractors, a toy baby, their very own notebooks and colored pencils, Legos, even some homemade Montessori materials. All of this sits in well-kept rows on our living room shelves, inviting the boys to play and explore. Sometimes they go for it, and it is the most wonderful and amazing thing, to see two boys working hard, with all their focus fixed on a puzzle or a drawing. Other times, they spend hours playing together with an ambulance and a fire engine they got for their birthdays. Most of the time, however, they end up fighting over something or other, and screaming their lungs out.
That does not worry me. It is the quiet that usually means trouble. The “terrible two” toddler trouble.
Sometimes the little rascal decides to ignore all the attractive toys, and invents the most outrageous pastime activities I could ever imagine. Yesterday, he found a small jar of expensive face moisturizer on the bathroom counter, and used it all to make himself a pair of thick white gloves. Today, he opened a jug of white vinegar I use for cleaning the bathroom, put it under the bidet faucet and turned the water on. Half an hour, and a lot of my nerves later, our bathroom was at its cleanest since we have moved in, and there were a lot of wet rags and soaked toddler clothes drying on our balcony. He climbs tables, steps on computers, finds my hidden stash of cookies and devours them all in one go. He opens the box of cocoa powder and sprinkles it on the rug, gives his toy cars a bubble bath in the bathroom sink, conjures the scissors out of the sewing basket and cuts up his big sister’s art project. He is as unpredictable as a tornado, leaving destruction in his wake.
I get worked up. Of course I do. I try to get so much done in a limited amount of waking hours, between a fourth grade math lesson and dairy-free pancakes with heaps of laundry and dirty dishes at the side, and I end up with more work on my hands, as a result of his endeavors. It is frustrating. It is downright exhausting. At the same time, it is the best parenting concept I can think of.
The fact of the matter is, if we want our kids to be creative, to learn how to think outside the box, to be brave and inventive and resourceful, we have to give them time.
Unstructured, unsupervised, uninterrupted free time.
The concept is not at all new. In fact, that was how most of my generation was brought up. We played with toy cars and dolls, we made art projects, invented dance routines, most of all we ran outside. The kids today? Not so much. Somewhere along the line, things took a drastic turn. Kids today spend less than an hour per day outside, on average. And even when they get outside? Think about it. When was the last time you saw a kid run wild, climb a tree or skip rope?
Whenever I take my kids someplace, we get strange looks. Honestly. Not so much disapproving, but more surprised. People are not used to seeing kids jumping all over puddles anymore. Not just in the city, but out there in the countryside, too. People stop and marvel at us, because I let my kids take off their shoes and waddle around in a stream for a while, even if it is not the middle of July, but a brisk April afternoon. They cannot believe their eyes, when they see a barefoot school girl and two shoeless preschoolers taking a shortcut through a meadow on their way to their grandmother’s house.
A few like-minded friends and a lot of research, which confirms that this style of parenting is not harmful, support my decisions.
My kids are not special. All children have a natural curiosity, they like taking risks and most would enjoy these simple activities as much as mine do. The problem is they are not allowed to. Most parents today fear that their kids will get wet and dirty, blue from the cold and ill, if they let them explore a bit. Even worse, it may all end up with an injury. That is a risk some parents are unwilling to take.
Kids get used to being told “No.” To be honest, after a while, most of them do not mind anymore. A lot of parents today have found a simple answer to a nagging kid who wants to jump in that puddle over there, or who is about to soil his jacket climbing a tree, a log, or just a less-than-clean park bench. The miracle solution? They hand over their smartphone. The child is happy, while the parent gets some work done, or sometimes just some much-needed time-off for themselves. It seems like a perfect solution, until they learn about the affects touchscreen technology have on a child’s brain. It is highly addictive and alters brain functions in a similar way to cocaine.
If we ask parents about the best thing about their childhood, it is likely their response might include the secret forts they built with their classmates after school, or the time they rode their bikes until it was dark outside, or that one time they climbed onto the roof of the school building without being caught. They go on about the afternoon when they looted some corncobs from a field and made a fire to roast them, or how they forged a lifelong friendship, while making a tree fort with the kid next door.
The things we enjoyed most as kids are the things our kids will never get to experience, unless we decide to do something about it. It is irresponsible to pretend that the world has not changed a lot and, in most places, we can no longer let our kids run wild without any adult supervision. But we can decide to look away from time to time. Or at least pretend to look away, while we let them scrape their knee and maybe get wet and dirty.
Someday that muddy puddle might be the stuff of their favorite childhood memories.