(Thomas Froese Photo)

PDF Version

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  — James Howell, 17th century writer

(Hamilton Spectator, Saturday, September 25, 2021)

Once again parents are celebrating September and their kids’ return to school, and I, for one, am enjoying the new freedom to reflect more on how to be the world’s worst dad.

First, this. The exasperated school principal. I recently watched the poor guy – it’s a thankless job – with his tie and blazer and jowls and arms all flailing and flapping in the wind. He was reprimanding some schoolyard boys, not a blade of grass in sight, as if they were about to bring red ants into the entire operation.

Whatever child’s play they were up to, the boys couldn’t have done worse than if they were running from the kissing girls, the girls who, when I was in grade school, never invited me to their parties. Yes, I’m a child of the ‘70s, when there was more danger but less fear. Remember, my entire generation should have been killed off by lawn darts.

And free play? Goodness, even God must enjoy free play, or why make all the warm-blooded mammals who like it so much?

In either case, for all the mothers out there, sorry, but the title of World’s Worst Mom is already taken. This honour went years ago to Lenore Skenazy, the New York Sun columnist who wrote about her 9-year-old boy, Izzy, riding the New York City subway. By himself. Some folks were horrified.

The boy had begged repeatedly, so mom eventually gave him a Metro Card, subway map, $20, coins if needed for a pay phone, and advice to ask strangers for help if necessary. Then, about 45 minutes later, right on time, the boy arrived home. Naturally, he was excited and encouraged by the trust he’d been given. Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids movement was birthed.

Like Izzy, my boy, who’s also nine in this old photo, appreciates rides where the thrill outweighs any danger. But lest you think this is just about the boys, our eldest girl once jumped off a cliff in the Bavarian Alps. “Have you totally lost your mind?” her wide-eyed mother asked when I suggested the jump. Even so, while tethered to her guide-instructor, our then-11-year-old ran and jumped and hang-glided down some thousand feet in a rather lovely series of arcs, before landing safely.

For her part, our third child, 15, fell off a horse this summer. Yours truly followed the ambulance while her mother sat inside, beside our injured daughter. She recovered fine. So what’s the girl doing Friday evenings this back-to-school month? Riding horses.

To elaborate, much research validates that risk and play need to go hand-in-hand for the brains of children to fully develop. They need play – especially free play – like they need oxygen. They need to climb trees. Tall ones. Leading play researcher Peter Gray notes that children need to “douse themselves in risk.” Without enough risk, play is boring. Too much and, granted, it’s terror.

But new societal norms, especially a dearth of free play, are contributing to today’s galloping rates of anxiety especially for i-Gen, according to researchers like Gray. Hovering helicopter parents don’t help. Nor does all that screen-time. Nor does a rise in academic competitiveness and homework. Skenazy once asked her child’s kindergarten teacher why kids so young already had homework. Answer? “So they’re ready for homework in Grade 1.”

Even without the pandemic factor, it’s all something to think about.

By the way, playing on a ball team or taking piano lessons is great, but it’s not free play. Free play is fooling around on that piano, imaginatively. Or joining a pick-up ball game without adult supervision. And don’t let anyone tell you that your kids will be abducted. Statistically, you’re about 90 times more likely to choke to death.

Not that there aren’t always dangerously-boneheaded manoeuvres to try. In an obviously-distracted state of mind from my ongoing interior happy-dance about the kids returning to school, I recently jumped straight into a busy street intersection. I was also escaping the pouring rain. My boy yelled, “Dad! No!” It wasn’t my brightest dad moment.

But there are roads and then there are roads. Consider this adage: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” Ignoring it just invites disaster of another kind.