Life was a lot less structured when we were kids. We had Little League baseball, football, basketball and hockey. However, organized sports did not last for long periods of time, and we did not go to lengthy playoffs in faraway towns. The rest of the time, we hunted and fished and played games with other kids in the neighborhood (Kick the Can, Hide and Go Seek, and marbles). This often led to making up our own teams and developing our own rules. Remember team captains tossing the bat and then placing their hands one over the other up the bat to see who got to choose their teammates?
We made up a lot of the playing rules because the space we used was more random. House windows or parked cars caused us to become creative in order to avoid getting into trouble. We saw that as a disadvantage, but in reality it was making us think creatively and developing our problem-solving skills. We also were not bored.
Our moms and dads called us to supper, where we interacted with our folks around the dinner table, each telling our stories and sharing our experiences. We joined Boy or Girl Scouts or got into 4-H. With adult leaders, we planned our events together as a part of a team, making decisions and working together. Hunting and fishing opportunities were done as family units, often with grandparents and other members of extended families as active participants.
If we needed money, we worked for it. We started by having lemonade stands and moved on to be newspaper carriers. We washed cars, sold magazine subscriptions, painted garages, mowed lawns and spaded gardens. The family that worked together stayed together. Today, however, kids seem to expect to earn money for camp by having fun! Example: They will come up to you and say, "I'm earning money for camp by going swimming. Will you sponsor me by giving me a dollar for each lap I swim in the pool?" My thoughts are, "My sidewalk needs shoveling!"
Somehow over the years, family life has changed a great deal. Our great society has changed. Some things are a lot better than they used to be, and we would not trade them for anything. Our daily lives are enhanced in opportunities available to us in the fields of communication, transportation and health care because of high technology. However, has our interaction with our children and grandchildren improved?
Changes in the family have been dramatic. More families are single-parent families. More family providers are working longer hours or have multiple jobs, while others can't find any work. Has this changed family values? I have observed some interesting changes in the way we relate to our children.
Our children often say they are bored. Boredom is not a bad thing. If you get bored, you will soon find ways to relieve those symptoms by being creative. When I was a kid, I rarely had time to be bored because we activated ourselves, and also our families were interactive with us. Our fear today is that if a kid is bored, he or she will get into trouble. Our answer is to involve them in lots of activities. We sign them up for organized sports. There are all kinds of youth sport programs to choose from, and they all have a longer seasons than they previously did. For example, if your kid plays hockey, he or she can do that all year, not just in the winter. Youth football practice starts up in early August and goes to December. Figure skating is all year. Lacrosse, soccer and field hockey run from spring to fall. You get the idea: If your kid is involved all the time, he can't get into trouble.
Don't get me wrong: There are a lot of well-intended adults who spend huge amounts of time involved with these activities, and they do a great job - but these activities have created a different relationship between parents and children. Quality time with your children and grandchildren in many cases has become a "spectator relationship." Families spend a lot of time sitting in grandstands watching and cheering their kids, and hundreds of hours in the car traveling to practices and games. If you have more than one child, chances are you are even splitting up your weekends, with parents going in two directions to different games in different towns.
I hear parents say, "It's important that we support our kids." Then, after the organized youth game, little Billy comes up to his family (talking on his cell phone) and says, "Mom can I go over to Joey's house tonight?" His mom replies "OK, if his mom says it's alright." Billy turns to his grandfather and says, "Hi Grandpa, thanks for coming." Billy takes off to find Joey. Is this quality time? How much does Joey appreciate his family being there?
When do Mom and Grandpa actually have "hands-on" interaction with Joey? When does Joey learn how to make decisions and get a chance to develop leadership skills, or are all the decisions made for him? His every minute is planned for him: when to practice, what position to play, when to play, how to play. How does he learn leadership skills? Is life always about winning, or are there times when other factors are more important?
We complain to our friends that it is harder to get volunteers to join civic organizations or to find people in our organizations to take leadership roles. Leadership skills are developed when people get a chance to make their own decisions, and by making mistakes and learning from their mistakes. Perhaps we need to spend more time doing activities with our youth as partners in projects instead of watching them prance before us. Perhaps we would be better off without planning every free minute of their time.
Am I saying we should not enroll our kids in organized sports? Absolutely not! What I am suggesting is a better balance of structured and unstructured time. Find more space for learning, exploring, thinking and sharing. Find a time to build a birdhouse together. Time to be creative. Sometimes we benefit from failure because it is a part of life and teaches us how to recover when things don't go just right.
Getting out in the natural environment is a great way to teach values and interact with family members. Fishing, hunting, canoeing, hiking and camping are just a few of the activities that can make great family interaction experiences. Just maybe we can begin to get our young people to see the glimpse of a lifestyle with responsibility and decision making. Perhaps we can teach an understanding of ethical behavior because when we pursue these types of outdoor activities, we don't have a referee or an umpire at our side to make the right call; we have to make those decisions ourselves.
Bob lives in Saranac Lake and is the executive program director of the New York State Conservation Council.