Friday, August 14, 2009

Metaphor for the next few years

Well, looks like we have survived the summer quite well. I am not even exactly looking forward to school starting next week—even as I AM looking forward to it—the kids are so happy! They are loving their unstructured time and actually making pretty good use of it, doing that serious work of being kids.

I was worried, though.

Rees is at an age (11) where it seems that playing with a pile of blocks or Legos just doesn't really cut it anymore. He and his friends need more excitement, something slightly risky and new. I know this is normal—and a big part of growing up comes from experimenting and trial and error—but I'm not sure I'm up for the excitement myself. I was wondering just how many edgy kinds of activities I could take.

Last spring, when Rees had a friend over and they were getting antsy, I sent them out back with hedge clippers to have a go at the Russian Olive tree. I knew they wouldn't kill the tree (you get an award around here if you manage to kill a Russian Olive—considered an exotic invasive), and they would get to use sharp tools. In no time, I noticed, they had also found and commandeered the machete. A good tool for the task…no? They were having a great time, and they did a good job. Okay, not so good with the clean up of the branches, but they did manage to trim off all the new growth and put the tools away, and no blood was drawn. That's one successful morning.

A few days later they wanted to play with candles and some matches. It was a cold, rainy Sunday, so I told them they could do it out in the driveway. Needless to say, this dampened their fun, but hey, it was safe, clean-up was minimal, and they were amused.

Then there was the math class project where they needed to construct a robot of geometric solids. They constructed "Arnold" from boxes and plastic jars and asked if they could spray paint him. So I got out some tarps, they helped me cover the drive, and they chose some colors to finish off their masterpiece. At some point in there, in between coats, I had to go get Kadin. 10 minutes max, but leaving two 'tween boys in the drive with spray paint in hand??

Came back to find they had also spray painted the pogo stick and a large mullein weed bright blue. "You just couldn't resist?" I asked. "You were just going to pull it up anyway, right?" said Rees quite logically and accurately. Right. They did great. I mean, they picked the best possible thing to paint. No harm done, if you don't count leaving your mother on edge and the specter of destruction lurking in the shadows...

A couple of days after that, it was hot and sunny again. We were all out for a hike and Rees and a friend were bored and wanted to go home. Okay, we said, we'll meet you at home in about an hour, and they trotted off.

Came home to find more wax drips in the driveway, strange chemicals (like my $80/pint stone sealer) uncapped and off the shelves, and a half-hearted attempt at putting away matches and candles. Hmmm. Also found some small potato chip bags around the house. Hmmm.

First I told Rees that it was not okay to randomly play with fire and unknown garage chemicals without asking. Then I asked where the chip bags came from. "Oh, we stopped at Ben's house on the way home and he gave us some chips." So Ben was here too? Three 'tweens, hot, sunny, dry, fire, and no adults. A combustible combination!

The funny thing is, if they had been organized enough to completely cover their tracks and completely clean up and put away all evidence of playing with fire, I think perhaps that would show they were thoughtful and together enough to keep from harm. And we've all done it. We've all enjoyed playing with fire.

But boy was I glad when the next weekend Rees had a field trip with his school band to the local amusement park. Perfect: fast rides, the allure of danger, but all in all, a pretty safe environment. I finally understood and appreciated the true function of the thrill ride.

So it was with some trepidation that I saw the summer (and the next few years) looming ahead of me. I'm crossing out of the golden age where the kids are old enough to pretty much take care of themselves but young enough to not get into serious mischief. Breathe, breathe.

But so far, it has turned out fine, I'm still enjoying the golden moment. We discussed the concept of group psychology where it is okay to be home alone, but not with a group. If I need to go out, I send the bunch off to someone else's house. And I have cultivated a strategy of being welcoming but clueless when other parents call, "Oh, your son is here? Are you sure? Okay...let me check." If other parents think I don't really know what is going on, I figure that's a good thing. I also try to be a little bit boring with the kids: make them get their own food and ask them to clean up and put things away, etc. I'm not trying to win any popularity contests, and it's working.

Instead of burning down the neighborhood, they have gotten into a card game at Dakota's called "Magic," enjoy playing "Halo" at Dustin's house, and at our house they have made up endless, imaginative games and variations involving the hose and the trampoline. [Okay, full disclosure: my rule HAS changed from "no jumping off the swingset onto the trampoline," to "no doing flips off the swingset onto the trampoline."] They seem inclusive and able to work through occasional conflicts and everyone is having a good time. And I really don't mind if they play with fire—it's something they have to do, it's how they learn—I just want it to be at someone ELSE's house. Ideally, with some wise adult who is interested and engaged. But if they do it on their own and somehow manage to be wise and thoughtful enough to cover their tracks? That's okay too.