“Last Child in the Woods”: Living in a Toxic Environment

We are in the suburbs of a large city and in an expensive townhouse and apartment community. There is a brand new playground in the middle of the community and the pool just re-opened. And it is toxic. Every couple months, threatening notes are placed in everyone’s mailboxes that focus almost entirely around the fact that children are playing outside. The most recent mandate, “effective immediately,” is that no child shall be outside at any time without supervision.

The mandate itself doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t define the age of such children or what constitutes supervision. It stems from complaints by other tenants that there are occasionally bikes or toys left around the community. That sometimes children cross someone’s back patio. That kids are riding bikes on the dead-end lanes in the community and that someone feels their rights are being fringed upon by having to slow down.

It is exactly what Richard Louv refers to as “the criminalization of natural play.” It is the attempt to keep children inside and not seen or heard. It is the thought that parents must have eyes on and helicopter around their children at all moments. According to his report, “Most housing tracts, condos, and planned communities constructed in the past two or three decades are controlled by strict covenants that discourage or ban the kind of outdoor play many of us enjoyed as children.” (pg 28) It goes against every concept of parenting, but emerges from the adult world of entitlement. To me, it stems from a belief that an individual should be able to have full control of the environment around his or her property and not be impacted at all by others in the community.

This environment is toxic to my soul and to the way that I want my boys to grow in independence, self-sufficiency, creativity, and respect. It goes against my desire for them to develop friendships and negotiate conflict by having space to interact with other kids. It takes away their opportunity to develop responsibility and an understanding of consequences. I expect them to make mistakes and to have to deal with the consequences. When Super Tall Guy accidentally slid his scooter handle into the neighbor’s car, he shouldered some of the cost to repair it.

Richard Louv discusses the importance of spending time in unstructured play. Building a tree house brings together the skills of math, science, spatial relations and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Exploring the habitats of wildlife engenders an understanding of the species coexisting with humans and a respect for protecting the environment.

Instead, as more children are forced to be inside due to the pressures upon parents, their natural tendency is to turn more and more to screens as a way to pass the time. The consequences of extended screen time are becoming drastically apparent. It is something I struggle with daily as Super Tall Guy has given up on the outside world and shifted towards passive entertainment. I continue to seek opportunities for him and the younger two to stay engaged in the outside world.

Clearly I can no longer foster outside play in my own housing community. Instead I look for chances to pack up the boys and head out to the nearest county park or other spaces (and I continue to look for more acreage in a house for the boys!).


Inspiring Hope

We put our tree up the day after Thanksgiving. The boys were so eager.

Hoping there's something awesome inside the box!!

Hoping there’s something awesome inside the box!!

Super Tall Guy asked about it from the moment he woke up. I reminded him that he had 3 hours of “upstairs time out” to do before he could participate in the tree trimming. Given his normal daily routine – he had that criteria met by 9:00 am! Silly boy.  (He still had to earn enough “star” points to be able to go to the afternoon movie, though. As you might be able to decipher, he was coming off a really (really) rough evening!).

Mr. Ornery was excited too when he woke up a few hours after Super Tall Guy. He bounced around the living room asking where the tree was. He eagerly put the branches in. He tried to help string some lights until my patience and his interest collided. He put ornaments up. And he asked where the presents were. I replied that they come on Christmas morning. And the next morning, he suddenly sat upright in my bed (yes, sometimes there’s two of them trying to pancake me!) and said “Are there presents under the tree today?”

He is hopeful.

I heard a talk by Richard Louv a couple months ago. I loved listening to him. He talked about how our whole body and spirit come alive by spending time in nature and how as a society we are drifting further and further away. It was depressing as well as challenging. But the point that caught me the most was when he talked about time that he spends on college campuses talking with students in the prime of their lives. And the one thing that he has noticed in recent years is a shocking lack of hope. He challenged and encouraged each one of us to re-instill that hope within all children that we have contact with. Hope for the future. Hope for good. Hope for relationships, for work, for the earth.

Little kids have hope. Little kids hope that there will be presents under the tree in the morning (at least that it will happen November 30th….and maybe again on December 25th). Little kids have hope for an extra frosted-covered donut in the morning. They hope for the 3DS video-game hand-held unit they so badly want for Christmas. They hope that we will move someday soon and get a dog. They hope Mom will play football in the house for “just 5 more minutes”….or build “just one more” Lego spaceship/aircraft for their fleet (and they hold out hope against all hope that we might find the microscopic heads for the countless Lego men laying around with just a peg jutting out of the torso).

We parents have a great deal of hope too. I hope that the boys actually grow up someday and move out of the house as happy, productive, joyful young men. I hope that they remembered to pick up the Lego pieces so I don’t walk on them in the hallway tonight (“why in the world do you HAVE to play in the hallway?!?!?”). I hope they sleep past 5:22 am….because that would make me so happy. I hope that someday we can get studio photographs done without them pushing each other off the crates, collapsing into giggly fits on the floor, or getting up and walking out before it’s done (because that SURE didn’t happen this weekend!!  The key is that I attempt these photo sessions in public….because having people around helps to control my behavior!!).

But we also work to instill hope in our children.  “I hope you have a good day at school, dear.”  “I hope you have much better behavior tomorrow.”  “I hope you have fun at the party.”  “I really hope you didn’t just push your brother off the couch for no reason (ie, I hope you come up with a darn good reason for that – fast!!)”

Tonight for Advent we talked about “waiting” and what we’re “waiting” for. Naturally the answers were mostly about what gift they were “hoping” for, but the important thing is – we were talking about hope. We were experiencing hope.  I’m going to try to keep up this theme this week. My wonderful mother blesses us (daily, for sure) and every Advent season with 24 Advent Bags containing fun little games or candy or toys for the boys. Every night they joyfully/greedily push and shove to find out what is in the bag that evening.  Of course, we forgot to do it tonight, so I just wrote notes in the little Advent calendar boxes to help them find their Advent Bags starting tomorrow, “Hope you can find your gifts by the piano”…. “Hope you brush your teeth after eating these” ….

Maybe it will catch on…..Maybe their little Hope candle will never burn out.

I can only hope.