I was finishing up my breakfast this morning when the effervescent host of the Today show teased their upcoming story, How To Keep Your Kids Entertained During The Winter Break. She said this with feigned urgency, as if school-age kids now have the attention spans and hyperactivity levels of a pack of border collies and need to have a ball thrown twenty-four hours a day, lest they chew up the sofa.
I zoned out Summer Barnswallow, or whatever her name was, and rinsed out my oatmeal bowl, put it in the dishwasher, poured a fresh cup of coffee and started thinking. I had a great mom, but I don’t think, even once, she worried about keeping my siblings or me entertained. As long as we weren’t jumping on the bed and poking our heads through the ceiling and into the attic, we were left to entertain ourselves. She cooked for us, bought us clothes, worried about taxes and bills, worked a full-time job and provided a nice, comfortable home. Our personal entertainment was on us.
The school kids in the neighborhood in which I live have just begun their mid-winter recess and a weeklong break from school. This mid-winter break used to be called Washington’s or Lincoln’s birthday, and we had a single day off from school for one guy or the other, dependent upon George or Abe’s ability to be born on a school day that year. One day off, maybe, but not an entire week. Our schooling must not have been as arduous for us, where we came off of a long Christmas vacation and barely eight weeks later, got another week off:
“I’m so exhausted, Sister Mary Francis Begonia. I need a weeklong mid-winter break.”
“You need a break? I understand. Rest your head while I fetch the holy knuckle stick. Do you think Jesus had a break!?”
Maybe kids wouldn’t be so worn-out if they weren’t forced to lug a dresser-sized backpack around all day as if they were pack mules hauling gold chunks out of a mine.
As I said, my mom was great, but she had a healthy laissez-faire relationship regarding our entertainment. The guidelines were simple: Unless there was a tornado, go outside and play, be home when the streetlights come on, no smoking, no drinking, no stealing and church on Sunday. We could watch whatever we wanted on TV at night, so long as it was Mannix, Perry Mason, Ed Sullivan, The Wonderful World of Disney or The Beverly Hillbillies, and only after our homework was done. Twilight Zone was a wonderful and twisted diversion from the usual norm but Mom was a little suspicious of my reasons for watching I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. “But it’s funny, Mom,” I said.
We also read a lot, so we all had our own library card, and each of us would be responsible for getting our books back on time. The late fee of a dime came out of our allowance or, in my case, my paper route income, so the incentive was high to get our books back in a timely manner.
We did have board games, but in hindsight, Monopoly was probably a little entrepreneurial for a ten-year-old, although when we did play, my older sister was the banker and I was the car.
We played Checkers and Sorry a lot, and we did jigsaw puzzles. We also played Solitaire, Crazy Eights, and Rummy. If I think about that now, it sounds as if we were raised in a nursing home. Admittedly, we were only a generation removed from chasing a hoop down the street with a stick, so it really didn’t take much to entertain us.
I could spend an entire day digging holes in the dirt in the backyard and be perfectly happy. In the winter, and because we used to measure daily snowfall rates with yardsticks, I could build a wholly satisfying snow fort with a shovel and a coal bucket, and I wouldn’t come inside until my mittens were more ice than wool. I never had any feeling in my hands or toes until July and I’m surprised I still have a discernible pair of earflaps.
We never took vacations. Ever. I don’t remember ever being away from my house for longer than a day. In the summer, we’d go to the beach or maybe to my grandparent’s house, but that’s about it. We did take a day trip to Crystal Beach Amusement Park in Canada once, which was the best thing ever on several levels. One, a different country. Two, a roller coaster that went out over Lake Ontario. Three, carny food. Four, we got to smuggle firecrackers across the border in our underwear. Come to find out, many years later, that my wife, the curly-haired daughter of German immigrant parents, lived right down the street. Small world.
That was it, though. For the most part, we had more than enough to do, and if we ever uttered the phrase, “Mom, I’m bored,” we’d regret it. There was always something that needed cleaning, mowing, shoveling or painting. Before there was Angie’s List for home contractors and day labor, parents had kids.
So as I sit in the office, being drawn to the outdoors on this beautiful and sunny February morning, I can see one, now two, and now several more kids walking around, kicking at the ground as if they’ve recently awakened from hibernation, unsure of what to do with themselves. They are unplugged and far away from a router. They appear to be in unfamiliar territory, resembling foreign tourists in their own front yards. Still, there they are, in the bright February sun, squinting like fruit bats and giving it their best shot. I have to applaud that and hey, if they’re bored, I’ve got a barrel hoop and a stick in the garage. The learning curve shouldn’t be any harder than learning how to double-tap on an iPad.