IN THE words of legendary educational analyst Alice Cooper, school’s out for summer.
If you’re a kid, shriek hello to no more pencils (not that anyone uses those anymore anyway), no more books (also going the way of the dinosaurs), no more teacher’s dirty looks (your attitude totally warranted them, young lady.)
If you’re a parent, give a big yawn for getting up at exactly the same time as always and clutching at faded end-of-school memories about setting your Trapper Keeper on fire in one of the cafeteria’s metal trash cans (can’t give me detention if nobody’s here, Principal Lyons!)
For most of us working stiffs who aren’t teachers, summer merely means day camp carpools, longer iced latte lines at Foxy Loxy and showing up to meetings sweating like we spent our lunch hour in a Turkish sauna.
It also means we’ve probably read at least couple of the eleventy-five-thousand articles about how kids today don’t get enough unsupervised playtime and they’re all going to grow up to be doughy, needy zombies with overdeveloped index fingers from swiping through the new Snapchat filters.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of letting kids wander the neighborhood eating other people’s snacks until the street lights come on. During the summer when I was growing up, we’d be banished from the house after breakfast and didn’t show back up until dinnertime, or until the golf course security guard carted us home for stealing fish out of the pond hazard on Fairway No. 6. No one knew where we were or what we were doing, and those of us who didn’t end up in jail or chased by Old Man Patterson for skinny-dipping in his Jacuzzi were all the better for it.
In a recent column for the Washington Post, daddy blogger Clint Edwards laments that his son finds such independence “scary,” and even sadder, seemed to think the takeaway of The Goonies has to do with neglected kids instead of a band of awesome adventurers. (I can only imagine what the poor thing thought about sibling abuse when big brother Brand threatens “I’m gonna hit you so hard, when you wake up your clothes are gonna be out of style!”)
But we all look at our own childhood summers through rose-colored sunglasses (mine are vintage Vuarnets, circa 1985.) We know the world has changed since then. No longer it is considered safe to let kids ramble aimlessly to learn on their own what species of rodents live in the empty lot at the end of the block or what happens if you follow a swallowtail butterfly into Old Man Patterson’s backyard. (Spoiler: he throws garbage at you.)
While the statistics debunk our fears of that the streets are full of skeevy predator in windowless vans promising kittens, those kind of abductions do happen at least 100 times a year, somewhere. Places once deemed safe spaces no longer are—it used to be that the worst thing that could happen to you in a movie theater was someone threw gum in your hair.
Here in Savannah, five young men ages 16-18 were arrested for flashing their guns around Daffin Park last week in the middle of the day—right near the public pool. The risks may be small but they are all too real.
Even if you refuse to give in to the societal pressure to keep your kids in a giant hermetically-sealed swim diaper until their 16th birthdays, your neighbors might call the cops on you anyway, like they did for California mom Sonya Hendren, who was arrested last December for letting her four year-old play 120 feet from her front door.
So it’s understandable why we think the best way to protect our precious babes—and our parenting reputations—is to keep them home with their beloved screens or hand them over to the supervised structure of day camps and other summer programs, where they will learn to make lanyards as long as their femurs and sing songs about that sadistic rabbit Lil’ Bunny Foo Foo.
Yet the freedom to roam still reigns. It’s important to note that for some working parents, an unsupervised summer isn’t so much a lifestyle choice as it is the path of least resistance. While local programs like the YMCA and the City’s art camp strive to be affordable, many families still don’t have access. For others, leaving for work in the morning while the kids sleep is a passive stand for teaching them independence, self-reliance and how to make their own damn breakfast.
This summer, due to this noble commitment and the utter burnout of the general manager (aka, me), our family is experimenting with total non-compliance of school year protocol. No day camps. No schedules. Complete your chores and do what you want as long as you check in every couple of hours by text.
It’s been one week and I’m starting to think juvenile liberty is a little overrated.Because you know what happens when tweenagers are left unsupervised? They make a big freakin’ mess! They use up all the TP in your bathroom and leave mysterious stains on all the towels. They eat a week’s worth of sandwich meat in one afternoon, but if you stop in on a lunch break with hummus and cucumbers they’re suddenly not hungry.
There are also cool art projects made without changing out of pajamas, spontaneous trips to the beach with friends, and long, boring afternoons that build character.
“So, what did you do today?” I asked my 12 year-old daughter over dinner.
“Rode my bike around,” she shrugged. “Went to the circle park and sat in the tree.”
“Why are your fingernails green?”
She held up her hands guiltily, showing me that she’d given herself a manicure in the same shade of polish now mysteriously smeared inside the refrigerator.
“I bought it at Rite-Aid,” she confessed, hanging her head because she hadn’t texted me that’s where she was going. “I’ll clean it up tomorrow.”
I almost got angry, not so much about the glitter smearings but of out of disappointment that the day wasn’t a more exciting, Goonies-type adventure, and maybe a touch of envy, too: Unstructured, unsupervised summers aren’t really a thing for grown-ups, and it’s been a long time since a trip to the drugstore was considered an illicit thrill.
“Well, it’s not like you don’t have time,” I said instead. “Want to paint my nails, too?”
Watching her brows knit over my toes, I realized how very much I want her to look on her back at her childhood and rosily remember that she had the freedom to make a mistake and clean it up, to ride her bike to nowhere, to use her allowance to buy cheap make-up.
Even though I’m pretty sure she’s mistaken that old Alice Cooper video for a YouTube eyeliner tutorial.