Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Jenny, Judy, John, and Jack--masters of doing nothing circa 1972

As I am on summer vacation, please enjoy this re-run essay:

I am a big proponent of giving kids downtime. The experts, whoever they are, tell us that all kids need a lot of time to just be kids. We should not be rushing them from class to class or event to event. They should learn to use their imaginations and learn to play quietly in the corner with simple toys like a potato or a piece of paper. The experts assure us that children do not acquire these self-entertaining skills unless we give them plenty of time to lie around and come up with fun creative things to do with their time.

Never mind that as children we had plenty of downtime and the most creative thing we ever came up with was tying Jack Stabenau to a tree and hurling chestnuts at him. What’s important is that we had the chance to come up with this kind of creative play by ourselves and so should our children.

So I give my kids a lot of down time. That’s another way of saying I’m too cheap and too lazy to sign them up for and pay for and drive them to class after class after class. Because of all this down time my children are very good at entertaining themselves on their own. Oh sure, if there were a blackout we’d be in trouble because the way my children entertain themselves is to turn on the nearest electronic, mind-numbing device with a screen. Their idea of special downtime is for one to be on PlayStation 2, one to be on the P.C., and the youngest to be parked in front of PBS Kids.

Last summer I decided this needed to change. When we went to stay with my parents for a few weeks I concluded that it was time my kids learned to enjoy downtime without the aid of electronic devices. I was also motivated by the fact that I was embarrassed that my parents might figure out that most of my parenting skills depend on the help of “Zoo Tycoon” and “Arthur.”So on my way to my parents I declared that our days at Grandma and Grandpa’s house would be “screen-free” from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.

Now I do not know about your kids but my kids always like the idea of these schemes. They embraced the whole notion.
“Sure Mom, we can go down to the beach,” said the oldest.
“And make sand castles!” said the middle.
“And play in the woods,” said the youngest.

This enthusiasm lasted at least ten minutes into our stay.“Please Mom, just a little T.V.” they begged. But I would not relent. I would not relent because my parents were watching me, waiting to see if I would cave and I realized you’re never too old to stop trying to please your parents.“No,” I said in my best June Cleaver voice, “You kids go on up to the playroom and figure out something that all of you can do that does not involve a screen.”They complained but they went up to the playroom. I sipped coffee and read the paper. I chatted with my parents. From time to time I heard yelling up there but I knew the experts would tell me to ignore it and let them work it out so I did not interfere.

At lunchtime they all trooped down, big smiles on their faces.“So, what did you come up with?” I asked.
“We made up a new game called ‘Car Wash’,” said the oldest.
“We found an old Matchbox set with a car wash and we drive our cars in it,” said the middle.
“It’s really fun,” said the youngest.

The experts were right! If you just give them enough time alone they will come up with something new. I smiled at my parents as if to say, “Aren’t I good at this?”All week long I would pass the door to the stairs leading up to the playroom and hear soft laughter or even silence.“What are you doing up there?” I’d call.

“Just playing ‘Car Wash’,” said the oldest.
“It’s so fun,” said the middle.
“It’s our favorite,” said the youngest.

I’d pause, smile smugly and think, “I wish everyone could give their kids such a great opportunity.”

The days passed quickly and the children seemed more content than usual. I was astonishingly full of parental self-righteousness. I patted myself on the back again and again for my ability to employ superior parenting skills.On the last day, as I was getting ready to pack I headed up to the playroom to find my son’s suitcase. I went up the stairs quickly and I guess quietly, for when I reached the top of the stairs I found my three, creative, resourceful offspring huddled around the T.V. that had been so recently turned off it nearly smoked. Spread out in front of the T.V. was the Matchbox car wash, which they all suddenly pretended to play with.

“You little demons,” I said. “You’ve been saying ‘play Car Wash’ to mean ‘watch T.V. secretly’.”

“No, no Mom, not us,” said the oldest.
“Well we played car wash too,” said the middle.
“Mostly we watched T.V.” said the youngest.

This is really the story of how I parent. Just when I think I’m doing the best I’m really, well, not. Still, it wasn’t a complete waste of time. They were resourceful enough to invent the ruse and getting along well enough to pull it off for two weeks. And nobody got tied to a tree.

By Judy Zimmerman

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