When New Yorker Lenore Skenazy allowed her nine-year-old son to ride the subway home from Bloomingdale’s solo, parents weren’t the only ones to take note. Dubbed “America’s worst mom” by one morning show, Lenore has emerged unscathed, as did her son from the subway, incidentally.
For all the parents out there who want to overprotect their child, there’s one who secretly wishes Lenore’s free-range movement (her subsequent book Free-Range Kids was a bestseller) would catch fire in their neighbourhood. I fall into the camp of moms who welcomed Lenore’s nerve and the freedom the crusade promised: “liberating the parents from obsessive fear and worry…liberating the children so they can have a childhood.”
But there’s one little problem: my free-range boys won’t leave the basement; they aren’t free at all. One’s hooked to a PS3, the other to a video game named Minecraft. I don’t recall Lenore mentioning anything about free-range boys loafing in basements. Rather, she paints a serene picture of kids exploring the great outdoors. So why does my front window face a desolate street? In my neighbourhood, the kids – free-range or otherwise – have been sucked indoors.
If my kids play outside for 20 minutes, they strut about the house as if they’ve run a marathon. I go about my business and they slip into the dungeon. Nine and 13, they move deftly, and I rarely notice their retreat – until I hear artillery fire blasting through the floor boards from the basement. “Upstairs!” I beckon, only to hear “In a minute,” echo from the depths of the cave. What are they doing? As if I don’t bloody know. This is our routine.
I’m thinking that if anyone can set my children free, it’s Lenore Skenazy. Besides her book, she maintains a blog
, writes a syndicated column, and hosts Bubble Wrap Kids
on Slice TV, in each case speaking frankly against the overprotection our children. In her spare time, she takes the odd call from curious mothers, such as me. “Lenore,” I want to say, “I’ve given these kids my best years. And now they’re shut-ins.” Instead we swap tales about raising teen boys; she reassures me that the day will come when they will find something else that interests them besides video games.
I may have to be patient. There’s a reason why the kids are in the basement: “You can send your kid outside to play but the critical mass of kids is not outside luring them,” Lenore says. In lieu of real kids, “video games [become] the perfect play companion.” Next she tells me what she asks all parents to consider: “Leave the kids at your local park for the day. Try it once,” she says. “Let the kids get to know one another. Make friends.”
Will it work? Lenore says yes, as long as other parents are on board. I consider sending the boys outside to invite the neighbours to the park. Then I remember that knocking on doors is a lost art. Texting, maybe. Of course, not every kid is convalescing in the basement. Through the sheers, I have on occasion spotted a few kids who are drawn to the outdoors – and to movement. These children are gifts from God.
Deep down, we know what has to be done: we must engage our kids. That’s why we feel crummy, really crummy. We no longer know how. Or we’re working and too tired to try.
Fortunately, Lenore doesn’t blame us. “I’m not even against the video games,” she says. “They allow you to get better at something … I don’t think they should be the only part of the play diet [but] I think they’re fine – just like playing solitaire.”
Like solitaire? This is not the answer I’m searching for. My heart starts to pound. And then I realize it’s not my heart – it’s the pounding sound from the basement: the artillery fi re has started up again. Bang. Bang.
I put down the phone and yell, “What are you doing down there?” But there’s no response – which is the worst response of them all. It means either one of three things: they are completely engaged in things that have nothing to do with me and so my voice will not register; they hear me loud and clear but plan to ignore me until I either march downstairs or implode; or they are thinking deeply, processing life’s many mysteries. It is this last point that causes me to pause before following through with option two.
Bill Gates’ dear mother was apparently similarly distraught over her boy’s downtime in the basement. Frustrated when he wouldn’t come for dinner one night, she was said to have shouted, “what are you doing?”
His reply: “I’m thinking.”
“You’re thinking?” she returned.
“Yes, Mom, I’m thinking. Have you ever tried thinking?”
Could one of my boys be secretly preparing to become the next Bill Gates? Like Bill, my kids seem to need a lot of processing time – either that or their processors are running on slow speed.
Let’s forget about Bill for a moment. I think Mrs. Gates was trying to tell us something. Like most moms, she was worried about her son. But maybe it was more than that; maybe she was concerned about the impact his work would have on future generations. Perhaps she recognized that she was harbouring a pioneer of the computer revolution and she had disturbing visions of how video gaming would engulf a generation of boys.
Assume for a minute that Bill wasn’t paying much attention to his mother. Here’s my theory: she didn’t ask, “What are you doing?” More than likely, she was afraid for you and me, and she was standing at the head of the stairs yelling, “What are you doing!”
Of course, I never met this woman, but I hazard to guess that she didn’t feel it was alright for her boy to be hanging out in a dark basement; he should be outside playing with all the other kids. Lenore refers to this sentimental feeling as “wanting [your children] to have a Peanuts gang childhood.” I, too, am guilty of wishing my kids could experience the same childhood I did. This summer, I organized a weekly baseball game at the park. The mothers loved the idea. Our best week, eight kids showed up and played for an hour (equivalent to a Iron Man Competition). Our worst week: a no-show.
If Mother Gates were alive, I imagine she and Lenore would campaign for mothers everywhere to unite and send their kids to the park. Or send the kids to the store. Send them to the mailbox. The library. Just send them out so they can bump into friends and connect. Getting them outside is half the battle. Lenore says that “once the kids are outside there’s usually something pretty absorbing to look at or do.”
Of course, I should pass along the last thing Lenore
said to me before I hung up: “For all my free-range life or crusading,
it’s still hard to get my kids off the computer and TV.” Not the message
I wanted to hear. Maybe she didn’t catch the desperation in my voice. I
should call her again – maybe send the boys to meet her. Let’s see … a
bus ride from Mississauga to New York. Hmm… “Kids, what are you doing?”
Barb MacDonald is a Mississauga, Ont.-based freelance writer whose last article for ParentsCanada was about avoiding cabin fever.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2012.