Unfettered childhood (Listening to a life)


I suppose he had every right to think of his childhood as deprived. My grandfather was hard hit by the depression and the family never seemed to get back on their financial footing. They moved around a lot. For a while they lived with his mom’s mother.

Joe and Harmon

And yet, every time I think of my father’s childhood, I think of the richness of it. There were always stacks of newsprint at the house for drawing. He and his brother Harmon made papier-mache football helmets that they baked to a hard finish in the oven. When they loved playing Monopoly at a friend’s house, they knew they had no money for such trivial things. and so they made their own. The two brothers carefully measured out and painted the board. They melted on the stove scraps of lead they’d scavenged and poured it into sand molds to make the game pieces. (Whose mother doesn’t let her children play with hot lead?)

There was no money for entertainment but my grandmother packed up the kids and drove them to a local college for their free summer classical music concerts. And, of course, there were always books. As my aunt observed, “They read about boys having adventures. Then they went out to have their own adventures.”

One day my father happened upon Harmon building a boat in the basement out of an old bookcase.  After the slightly less than seaworthy craft  named Jeep was built, Harmon suggested that they tie it to the top of the car in order to get it to the James River. When my father replied that he didn’t think their mom would let them do that, Harmon replied, “Let’s assume she would have said yes if we had asked her, and go ahead and do it.” (Sailing the Jeep down the James became one of our legendary family stories.)

I feel that at this point I should insert the disclaimer: Do not try this at home.

Except that I think that the spirit of it is what we all need. (Second disclaimer: I am not advocating that your children sail their homemade boat down a major river.)

Joe and Harmon had an unfettered childhood. Their mother insisted on using correct English grammar, but she let them explore. Create. Use their imaginations. As a result, they grew up thinking that they could do anything. And they did.

I’m not talking about the sense of entitlement that we see far too often, children thinking that they should have anything or that everything should be done for them. This is the opposite: a sense of empowerment.

Joe and Harmon got to use their imagination a lot a boys. Some of it was encouraged, like always having paper handy. And some of it was necessity, like making their own Monopoly set. As a result, they grew into a natural belief that if they wanted to do something, they’d figure out a way to do it.

When my father started sailing seriously, he learned celestial navigation. He designed much of the furniture he built. My uncle dropped out of high school but then went on to earn a PhD and spend much of his career as a university professor. They believed they could find a way to do it. And they did.

Children need unfettered play. (Once again, a disclaimer. I am not advocating sailing down the James River by themselves in a boat that is barely afloat.)

Children need an opportunity to create, to imagine, to make up their own games and their own worlds. Children need to gain a sense of mastery by  facing a challenge and then overcoming it. The thing is, children will do this if allowed. Ever see a two-year old at Christmas having much more fun with the box rather than the toy that came inside?

As adults, sometimes we need to help and encourage them in figuring things out (What do you think we could do here?) And sometimes we just need to get out of the way. Give them blocks. Or boxes. Or a stack of paper. Or a yard to explore. And let them play.

One of the saddest comments I can remember reading came from a preschool teacher who said they children in her class had no idea of what to do when they were turned out onto the playground and given free playtime. They’d never been allowed just to play. Some adult always organized the game for them. They didn’t know how to turn the jungle gym into a pirate ship.

I wish every child such a childhood that creates adults who think they can do anything. And do.

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