My son is almost four, and as he gets older and into more activities, I’ve begun to think more about my own childhood. Not surprising I suppose (we all tend to make everything about ourselves), but I’m noticing one major difference in his world vs. my past world that’s starting to concern me: The lack of other kids, daily neighborhood kids, in his life.
I grew up right smack in the middle of Florida. In a swampy, muggy, beautiful town called Dunnellon. Dunnellon is home to one of the most stunning spring fed rivers I’ve ever seen, the Rainbow River. On any given day in Dunnellon, you could find a pack of kids, slathered in sunscreen, plopped on top of inner tubes, and floating down the river to a destination where someone’s mom had parked a car to pick them up. If we weren’t floating down the river, then we were walking barefoot to a swimming hole the river had made somewhere, in someone’s neighborhood, to swim and splash and soak the day away.
Also, there was little league baseball. Everyone I knew, I mean everyone, boys and girls alike, first played tee ball, and then softball or baseball. Everyone’s dad also seemed to either sponsor a team or coach one, mine did both. Families in Dunnellon swarmed to the little league fields so often for practice and games that we all became like one big family: Some of them hated each other the way only kin does and yelled a lot, some fed all the kids who were huddled by the concession stand without blinking an eye, and some loved a little bit extra on the kids a whose parents always seemed to disappear for an hour or so. It was like a hot and dusty family reunion each week, and we all welcomed it.
And, of course, there was Dunnellon First Baptist Church. We lived closed enough to walk to church and we were there each Sunday and Wednesday. Sometimes I’d walk there on a week night just for something to do. There were always neighborhood kids playing on the playground or the Pastor’s son, who was my age, hanging about. Church for our family was much more about relationships than religion. I even had a t-shirt in the 90’s that proclaimed: “Its Not a Religion, It’s a Relationship.” That cheesy tee pretty much sums up the way my family feels about the God stuff. At church we had bad spaghetti dinners and planned mission trips to places a hurricane had hit especially hard. It was like a big family full of broken people trying their best to help other broken people. That little church taught me a lot about what real love looks like.
So as my son gets older, and I begin to look back, I feel like I got to grow up in this magical time and place. I mean, if we weren’t on the river, playing ball, or at church, we were wandering. Wandering through the woods, on our bikes, and up trees. Playing with baby frogs, fishing, or (dare I say) stealing someone’s boat for a joyride. We spent our days getting dirty, doing cartwheels in the grass, and arguing over whether or not a certain snake was poisonous. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we’d play inside the house with Barbies and GI Joe’s, but more often than not we were all outside, a big heap of us somewhere, waiting for the big bell that hung on the back of my house to ring us all home once it got dark.
That’s what I want for my son. That stuff. I want him to know the unmistakeable satisfaction of being so exhausted from the best day of playing ever that you fall asleep with your shoes on. I want that. But I’m worried. I look around my neighborhood, and even though we all have young kids, I don’t see them, and I’m afraid I know where they are. I’m afraid, because I know where mine is starting to gravitate towards, and it seems to be addictive as heroine.
Now, if you are a neighbor of mine, and you are reading this, please don’t take offense. It’s true, I don’t really know what your kids are up to. I’m not looking in your windows or recording your every move, so please, feel free to tell me I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I want to be wrong. Knock on my door and assure me I am wrong. Better yet, have your kid knock on my door and drag my kid out!
Also, I am not unrealistic. I understand that this generation will have more screen time than mine did. I get it. I don’t always like it, but I get it. I’m not saying we take away the screens completely. That would be chaos. I’m not cray-cray. What I’m saying is: I’m worried. I’m worried our kids will miss the joy that comes from a particularly boring day of not catching a single fish. Or the memory of their first awkward kiss under a tree. I’m worried the best storytellers are behind us because the big, outdoors, larger than life adventures you only have as a kid are no longer being had. I’m worried that, if I’m not careful, I’m going to gyp my kid of this kind of magic.
So, hear me on this: I’m not blaming anyone. I’m guilty of the screen babysitter myself, but I’m trying to get better, and I want your help. How do we make sure our brilliant, funny, energetic, loving, imaginative, innocent kids get the best that this planet, this beautiful earth, has to offer? How do we do that now, before they are grown and have bills of their own to pay and kids of their own to worry about? How do we make sure they don’t miss it, the real “it?”
Oh! Yep. And just like that, my still-three-year-old son is waking up from his Sunday nap. So, I’ll start now. I’ll resist the urge to put on the Spiderman movie he loves for the second time today so that I can clean, or check Facebook, or finish this post. I’ll take him outside… I think I see some puddles in the alley that need stomped in.
Leigh Anne, Sydney, Krysta, and me
Dunnellon, FL circa 1987