Sunday, March 13, 2011

King of the Wild Things

It seems like, at just past 3.5 years, every other day is a trial. Today was one of those. He challenged every decision, refused every activity, threw things, hit, kicked, slammed doors, and just generally made everything more difficult and unpleasant than it had to be. Some little part of me is happy when I see him working that same behavior on his mama. We read Where the Wild Things Are as part of the bedtime routine tonight, and I swear he is often the spitting image of Max yelling, "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" Though as of yet, we haven't sent him to bed without eating a thing.

Much of his attitude is his attempt, I'm sure, to assert his independence, to exert his will over mine, or his mother's. This weekend I worked the boys' high school basketball championships, which is sometimes exciting and sometimes, like this year, completely mind numbing. Not the event, really, just my position during the event. This year, I worked two consecutive shifts courtside, sitting in a chair behind the photographers keeping them from moving too far forward and tripping the players or officials and keeping the patrons from coming down onto the floor. In reality, though, I was just sitting and watching basketball. There were some good games, sure enough, but it made for a long, slow day without the moving around and interacting with people and solving problems that I like best. The other two shifts I worked were in the "usher room," a closet where ushers can check in their belongings and check out things like radios, ticket scanners, and the like. Even more boring.

So where I was going with this is, while I was in the usher room, I read two issues of The Atlantic cover to cover, including the most recent, which had a trio of articles related to the entire Tiger Mother brouhaha. One article was "Sympathy for the Tiger Moms" by Sandra Tsing Loh. I took this one in a sort of Chris Rock "I'm not saying she was right, but I understand" sort of way. (NSFW link, BTW). There was also "The Ivy Delusion" by Caitlin Flanagan, which I took as, "The reason you middle class white moms are upset is because clearly the Tiger Moms are taking college admissions spots away from your kids by choosing what you're not willing or able to choose."

To me, though, the most interesting was "Leave Those Kids Alone" by Christina Schwarz. The images of childhood reverberated for me ("finding a stone that 'they could believe was an axe-head, or a fossil'"; "Girls could carry their books in both arms across their bellies, but boys had to carry them in one hand against their sides"; "A kid needs time to lie on his back, opportunity 'to find out whether he breathes differently when he’s thinking about it than when he’s just breathing' and to wonder who she’d be if her parents hadn’t gotten together. A kid needs enough downtime to be bored, yes—bored enough to stare at the sky and study the imperfections in his own eyeball.") I thought, not for the first time, about the difference between what I remember from my upbringing and what I've seen of children's experiences today.

When I was a kid, I had to come home after school, and then I was free and clear until dinner time. My mother had no idea where I was or what I was doing for hours every day. And this was perfectly normal. From what I've seen, it's not normal now. The exception that proves the rule, as they say, is the little girl next door who spends hours each day and seemingly entire weekends roaming the neighborhood freely without so much as a head stuck out the door from her parents, a fact which amazes the local parents, myself included.

On the one hand, thinking of an unsupervised childhood in terms of Thumper terrifies me, because some of what I was doing when I was a child (like crawling through storm drains and setting fire to golf courses) was inadvisable at best and dangerous and destructive at worst. On the other hand, I recognize how much freedom to learn, explore, and develop my own personality, interests, and relationships that time away from grown-ups gave me. My friends and I, and my brother and his friends, explored creeks, caught crawdads, built things, destroyed things, talked, wondered, and did nothing at all, completely free of adult involvement, adult supervision, adult rules, and adult safety gear. And ultimately, I think I'm better for it and only occasionally approached anything like serious danger. And I have no doubt even the danger taught me a few things, too.

So this afternoon, I asked Thumper if he wanted to weed with me. For some reason, he was thoroughly excited by this proposition and ran to tell his mama. Confused as to his excitement about weeding, she said, "What? You and Daddy are going to go weed? Or Wii?" Weed! he happily assured her. Once outside, though, his enthusiasm quickly faded and he said, "Can I ride my bike?" I agreed, got his bike out, and strapped his helmet on his head before returning to my weeding. He stayed close, circling in the driveway. Then he said, "Can I go ride by myself? Because you're still weeding." I thought about it, thought about that article, and said, "OK." I told him what his boundaries were and reiterated more times than he was comfortable with that he couldn't cross the street. He took off happily in the direction of the sound of other kids having fun.

The boundaries I set for him were essentially my sight lines. I dug up a few weeds then checked on him. He was still there where he'd dropped his bike, playing with a gang of other kids, on the correct side of the street. I dug up a few more weeds and looked again. He was fine. I gave him over an hour of freedom, looking in his direction every so often, and when I couldn't see him, riding my scooter (yes, the scooter that broke my finger) down the street until I could see him and then turning around again. I got a fair amount of weeding done, and he got a fair amount of playing. No one was hurt or abducted.

Incidentally, a neighbor walked by with his dog as I was weeding. He is a fitness, and apparently tanning, fanatic who owns a small dog. I try not to jump to conclusions based on this information, but well, I do jump to conclusions. My first experience with him was during the neighborhood triathlon before Thumper was born. He was out jogging before the event began, and I casually mentioned to him as he passed that he might want to run on the sidewalk instead of the bike lane because a huge crowd of kids was soon to be filling the bike lane. He mumbled something about asphalt being better for the knees than concrete and kept right on running in the bike lane.

My next experience with him was when Thumper was riding his bike through the neighborhood, and he was in his yard, digging up weeds and grumbling about how much easier it would be to keep a neat yard if his neighbors ever did anything about THEIR weeds.

Other than that, I've only ever seen him walking his dog, or running, or biking, and he's never looked twice at me or had a pleasant word to say. To be fair, neither have I.

Well, today, he walked by, looked at my big pile of extricated weeds, smiled, and said, "Hi."

What was I talking about again? Oh, yeah, childhood's freedom from adults and their rules and their structure and their "hanging around and bothering them and... making it so bloody important." And maybe 3.5 is too young to be playing unsupervised with slightly older and much older children hundreds of feet away from me, but despite all my fears as I dug up weeds, he didn't get snatched, he didn't get run over, he didn't get shot in the eye with a pellet gun or beat up.

Later, when I asked him what he did when he played with those other kids, he said, "I climbed into Mikey's truck, and I got inside it, and you didn't see me."

"If Mikey said it was OK," I said, "then that's all right. The only reason I told you not to climb on that truck before is that no one was around, and I didn't want you to get in trouble with Mikey's dad."

"Yeah," he said. "It was OK. I climbed in the truck. You didn't see me because you were weeding. Maybe we can weed again tomorrow."

Maybe we can.


anne said...

Sometimes I think being a parent is more educational for the adult in the relationship than for the child. It is a good sign of independence that Thumper wants to do things without you; it is also a good sign of your independent parenting that you are comfortable with letting him try new things.

I really try to say "yes" to most reasonable requests my kids make. Of course there are considerations for safety and health (no, you cannot have ice cream for dinner; no, you cannot walk to the park with your friend when you are 8 years old with no adult along... but yes you can have two cookies with your cousin and yes you can ride your bike around the block one time since you are 12 years old now.)

Thanks for continuing to share your adventures in parenthood. I still think that parenting is one of the most entertaining undertakings I could ever imagine for myself.

I, Rodius said...

Thanks. It is an interesting balance, isn't it? With so many things that I nag him about each day, I try to be permissive wherever I reasonably can. It's a mad world.

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