I wouldn’t describe my mom and dad as helicopter parents. Partly because giving us a long leash was just their parenting style. Partly because with eight kids running around like a bunch of maniacs, you’d need a whole fleet of helicopters to keep track of us.
Raising a ridiculous amount of children also comes with a hefty price tag in terms of groceries and other essentials. As such, we typically couldn’t afford to be involved in organized activities like hockey, swimming or music lessons. And when you grow up in rural Southwestern Ontario, there aren’t many metropolitan distractions to occupy your time with.
In short, we learned pretty quickly how to entertain ourselves. Sometimes that meant innocent enough activities like going for a bike ride or swimming at grandma’s beach. Other times, our boredom-busting tactics were a tad more… idiotic.
For example, the street we grew up on was a gravel road. My brother Nicholas and I would often walk along that road with our cousins Jonathan and Adam, and to keep ourselves entertained, we came up with a very clever game. A real thinking man’s game if you ask me.
The rules are pretty complex, so try to keep up. Step one, grab a handful of gravel. Step two, hurl said gravel into the air. Step three, close your eyes and brace yourself as rocks rain from the heavens. Sometimes you’d luck out with just a small pebble bouncing off your shoulder. Other times a big rock would crack you on the top of your skull.
There were no real winners. Just varying degrees of losers.
Don’t’ judge us too harshly. The game was inspired by my big brother Damien, who used to throw lawn darts (and I’m talking old school lawn darts equipped with pointy metal tips) high into the sky and see how close to him he could get them to land.
Another incidence of stupidity really stands out. It was a warm summer day, and Jonathan, Adam, Nicholas and I were once again devising ways to occupy our afternoon. The activity we landed on? Setting things on fire in Jonathan and Adam’s backyard.
For starters, we doused a large piece of plywood with gas, set it ablaze and dared each other to run across it. Then we kicked things up a notch, lighting up a soccer ball and hotfooting it up and down the lawn. But the scorched feather in our cap had to be our short-lived game of fireball baseball.
After drowning a green tennis ball in gas, our pitcher Adam lit the sucker up and picked it up with a pair of barbeque tongs. Turning to Jonathan who stood ready with his trusty aluminum baseball bat, Adam lobbed the fireball to him.
Jonathan was quite the little athlete. WHACK!
We all gaped in delight as the flaming tennis ball sailed through the air like a mini meteor. However, that delight was quickly replaced with dread as the trajectory of Jonathan’s well-struck fireball became clear. Why we thought it was a good idea to face the house remains a mystery. A combination of youthful inexperience and too much gas fumes, I suspect. Whatever the reason, the fiery missile not only made it across the yard to Aunt Rene and Uncle Ed’s house, but it flew directly into the open back door.
A quick, collective scream of panic later and the four of us were sprinting toward the house to keep it from burning to the ground. Thanks to some ridiculous luck, the one-in-a-million shot did no damage, as the fireball must have extinguished just before flying inside. We put the gas can away anyway, agreeing that it might be best not to press our good fortune.
Nurturing healthy imaginations
Involving our kids in structured activities like hockey, art camp or swimming lessons isn’t bad. It teaches them valuable life skills and is a great way to make friends. But at times it seems as though every waking hour of kids’ lives these days is crammed full of these activities.
The danger is that if we constantly spoon-feed our kids prepackaged sources of entertainment, we leave little room for them to use their own imaginations. And when we don’t need to use our imaginations because we are constantly handed ways to entertain ourselves, we let it get out of shape.
In 2005, the cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York. The stick made the cut in 2008. “It’s very open-ended, all-natural, the perfect price—there aren’t any rules or instructions for its use,” said Christopher Bensch, the museum’s curator of collections. “It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight’s sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot with a rubber band.” In a time when it seems requisite to occupy every minute with high-tech gadgets and super-structured activity, it’s nice to see the simple stick and cardboard box recognized for the limitless entertainment potential that can be unlocked through a little imagination.
Sure, flaming tennis balls and scalp-splitting gravel may not be the best examples to use to build a case for leaving kids to come up with up their own forms of entertainment. Fair enough. But growing up in an environment where “go play outside” and “be home by supper” were as far as recreational structure went, we learned how to fend for ourselves (and to be clear, our playtime didn’t always end in near-arson). Furthermore, I think giving us the space to use our imagination helped us nurture our creativity, which in turn supported other important life skills like problem solving and critical thinking.
I’m not saying hand your kid a tennis ball, jerry can and some matches. In fact, to be clear, DON’T hand your kid a tennis ball, jerry can and some matches. But maybe scaling back on the number of organized activities you have your kids involved with wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Don’t feel the need to occupy every waking moment of their days. Let them get bored from time to time. Let them turn to themselves for entertainment rather than constantly expecting it to be handed to them.
Like these stories? You’ll find a whole whack of them — more than 50 in fact — in my book Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.