From time to time life provides you with benchmarks letting you know just how different things are from when you were a kid--- usually just as the bench is collapsing under you. This applies even to such benign entities as summer vacation.
As is customary the last day of school in June, I greeted Anna at the bus stop with a sheaf of camp brochures the thickness of Bernie Madoff’s rap sheet. All the usual suspects were there: art camp, scrapbooking camp, YMCA camp, latchkey camp, soccer camp. Normally the embodiment of the Yiddish saying “pins in his britches,” Anna had always thrown herself into these activities as a teenager into a mosh pit.
So I was a bit taken aback when she turned thumbs down on all of them except ceramics class, one hour a week.
“I just want to play with my friends and go to Grandma’s,” she said, hammer-throwing her book bag into the shrubbery.
“You mean, have a Huck Finn kind of summer, just hanging out…”
“… and getting put back two grades in the fall after your brain has turned to mush?”
Lest you get the wrong impression, I’m not one of those overscheduling parents who wants his daughter in Brown U. before all her adult teeth are in, studying middle English while playing point guard in the NCAA championship. I believe work and play should balance and intermingle, reinforcing the notion that learning is constant and desirable. Childhood should be a garden with enough space between rows for dreams to take root.
Nevertheless, I’m a hard guy when it comes to summer vacation. I think American kids get too much of it. (Teachers will please wait until called on.) Look at other cultures. In Asia six to eight weeks is the norm, and it’s not spent making Shrinky-Dinks. We know a family in Seoul. No sooner has the last bell rung at their daughter’s primary school than a waiting troop carrier carts her off to Korean culture camp, where she learns everything from Taekwondo to taegu prep to how to wear a hanbok, with a little anti-aircraft marksmanship thrown in should MiGs from north of the DMZ show up. Free time to her means sleeping.
So the prospect of Anna doing little else for months but guzzle Sprite in front of Kim Possible with various accomplices, and make chocolate chip pancakes with someone who wears trousers rolled like Prufrock, had me concerned. If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, surely by fall she’d be sprouting horns. And Marsha and I would be on Valium.
But that’s the way it was when we were kids, it occurred to me. Every minute wasn’t mapped out for us. There weren’t classes in everything from Navajo mythology to finger painting, nor were there chauffeuring moms. Families had one car, and Dad used it to get to work. We made our own fun, got into trouble, and survived. The crossing guards grew up to be the Karl Roves of the world, and the rest of us avoided life sentences, with or without a good attorney.
So after a family meeting, we decided that everyone should have at least one summer of unstructured play, because opportunities, like Everest, are there; but unlike Everest, they can disappear. Grandparents aren’t around forever. Friends move away and lose touch. Dreams fade if they’re not nurtured.
As yet, Marsha and I are only on over-the-counter drugs. Anna’s chores list hit the circular file along with her summer library reading log, and she’s tended to go to bed on Beijing time. The main issue has been a lack of verbal restraint. Being called Barf Brain by a grade-schooler when you refuse her a snack at the cineplex is a bit much.
Naturally, this has nothing to do with the kids Anna hangs out with, all of whom sport gossamer wings. They must. Because whenever Anna sleeps at someone else’s house, the parents marvel at how polite she is. If any kind of consanguinity were at work, their place would be in an uproar, too. I think.
One thing’s certain: Without the discipline of a schedule, something like a trickle-down effect of misbehavior begins to operate. You start vacation with Teddy of Good Luck Charlie and end it with Regan of The Exorcist. It’s the flipside of having the leisure to explore dreams, and another reason for the academic year to be longer.
Which is why, next June, before she starts jackhammering countertops, Anna will again be encouraged to do regular activities. And not just watching The Suite Life of Zack and Cody every afternoon at 4:00.