Free Sticks are Bad. Expensive Sticks Are Good

I think I’m going to un-schedule my kids, at least a little bit. Instead of signing up my little one for the next round of sports, I’m going to buy him a tent.  I’m going to encourage him to poke more things with sticks and will occasionally even let him borrow my pocket knife.

Relaxing my hyper-vigilance won’t be easy. I’ve lived a fear-based life for quite some time now, but my tiny little precious youngest son is turning nine in a few weeks. It’s time.

Obviously bad things can happen. I’m not saying I’m going to drop my two sons onto an island and let them battle it out Lord of the Flies style. But I seem to be just fine about sending him on an ice rink to play hockey, one of the 10 most dangerous sports for kids. Why am I all freaked out about letting him roam around the woods, but actively encourage him to play a sport that I know will likely result is loss of teeth, if not worse? Apparently I’m only over-protective when the activity is free and requires minimal effort from me.  For some reason, emptying my bank account and gas tank to watch my kid strap metal blades to his feet and try to hit things with a long stick is perfectly rational. Letting him find his own stick for free while I sit on the porch (approximately the same distance from my child as I am in the stands when he is on the ice) seems reckless. Anything could happen, because free sticks are dangerous.

You know what might happen if I force him to entertain himself? He might get bored.  If he gets bored enough, maybe he’ll take that dolly in the garage and build something with it. What would the world look like today if the Wright Brothers had been provided constant entertainment by their mother?  If you find that leap a little too preposterous, do you really think Lonnie Johnson would have invented the super soaker if his father hadn’t encouraged him to build his own toys?

Maybe my sons will be forced to actually play with the kids next door if I am not willing to drive them all over tarnation.  In first grade, my best friend was selected partially on compatibility of interests and fully on being walking distance from my house.  We played together daily for the next five years. I still miss her on occasion. What great friendships am I preventing my child from making by using all his free time to interact with kids in a highly structured sports environment? Sure he likes his teammates, but I don’t think he could tell you who their favorite Pokémon is, and I barely recognize his friends without their helmets and uniforms on.

This past weekend, my youngest child had to leave his best friend’s sleepover birthday at bedtime, because he had to play in an outdoor hockey tournament the next day. Think about it—I actually gave up a night with one less child (and therefore half the chaos) in order to stand outside from 9:30 am -1:00pm, and I paid for the privilege of doing so. Sure he had fun, but he was having a blast at the sleepover party as well, and that didn’t result in any risk of frostbite or require me to pay for parking.

Of course I’m not the first person to resist the overscheduling moment. In fact, as of yesterday I was ready to sign my youngest up (at his request) for spring hockey, even though every game will be played 30 minutes from my house. But I woke up to pee at 5:30 am, and happened to catch a TED talk entitled Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do (I fell asleep to NPR’s TED Radio last night, and it was still playing when I woke up.) The episode was about the benefits of letting kids do dangerous stuff, and the next one—which I was sadly not awake enough to note the title or the speaker of—was about how society has switched so that we work for our children. This truth was so profound that sleep was no longer an option. I had to get up and make coffee so I could start shopping for tents for my soon-to-be-nine-year-old. I know what you are thinking—when you were a kid you made your forts out of blankets and rope, why do I need to shop for tents at 6:30 in the morning? I’m still me after all, and if there’s a way to micromanage a free-range childhood, I’ll find a way to do it.



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