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I am a writer, a mom, and a friend. In this blog, I explore all of that. Please join me in this conversation by leaving a comment on anything you've read. Or follow me on Facebook @ Beth von Behren (author).

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Wonder of Unstructured Time

My mother was very good at robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep our tuition paid at the Lutheran grade school my brothers and I attended. It was the 1960s and she did not yet work, so every extra penny went into our education, which meant there was no money for summer camp. In fact, when I was a young adult and began reading about other people's experiences at summer camp, I was mystified and jealous that they had had such great childhood summers.

Our summers were pretty much spent sleeping late, riding our bikes, playing ball, swinging and sliding on the rusty swing set in the back yard (and building a fort under the slide), climbing trees, and watching TV on the ever-revolving set of black and white televisions that my dad would buy cheaply and keep in working order for a while. Once in a while my mom would spice things up with a little barbecue, and for two weeks every summer, we would visit our grandparents in southeast Missouri, where our summer "vacation" really took off (my grandmother had a real soda machine on her carport, a way for her to make a little spending money off the neighborhood kids, so we got more soda at her house than we ever did at home).

There were no video games, cell phones, or computers (we "googled" at the library). I spent a lot of time reading in bed and daydreaming at the top of the tree in the back yard. We didn't complain of being bored because if we did, some kind of physical work in the house or the yard would be found for us to do.

When I was a young parent and had stopped working to be home full-time, I would hear stories from working moms about how difficult it was to get a summer camp schedule all plotted out and arranged. Most camps didn't run all summer, and the best ones offered two-week sessions, back-to-back, but with separate themes, registrations, and requirements. One mother told me, with a great sigh of exasperation, that she kept a calendar on the refrigerator beginning in March and filled it in as she filled up each week with camp, vacation, or time with grandparents. I had a hard time not looking at her in horror. If it's hard on you, I thought, what do you think it's doing to your kids?

It was often difficult to arrange play dates for my kids with school friends because they were literally booked up, and you know, if you're paying several hundred dollars a week for a camp, you don't want to interrupt it for a two-hour play date on Tuesday. So since our family could not afford these gold-plated camps, we improvised. We went to the pool a lot (an improvement on my own childhood, when there was no pool close by and no money to join the Y), and we slept in, played ball, painted with finger paints, rode our bikes, went for walks, cooked together, read books, went to the library, built fortresses out of couch cushions, and watched TV (color, with cable, another improvement).

And it was wonderful. I wouldn't trade my childhood or my kids' childhood for anything. As a kid, I had a lot of "down" time to think and play and to just be. Even today, I find myself craving those moments when I know I am scheduled to do absolutely nothing. I am productive at work, spend time with friends, write a lot, work out at the gym, talk with my kids throughout the day and spend as much time with them, now that they are young adults, as they will give me.

But...but I would not be able to do any of these things very well, if I didn't recharge, if I didn't give myself time to be alone, to do nothing, or to do nothing important. Everybody needs that. I have had people tell me that they don't need it, that they hate being alone or they hate having nothing to do. They try to fill up every minute the way that mom from years ago filled up her kids' summer calendar. They make me want to reach out to them, take them by the hand, and walk them to a park where they can sit and do nothing but watch the kids play on the playground while the church bells peel in the distance.

I readily admit that there is no secret formula to raising kids, and I would never claim my parenting style was the best way or the only way. In fact, I'm absolutely certain my kids have watched too much television, eaten too many frozen pizzas, and played too many video games. I'm also sure that my friends' children who spent their summers in camp got a great deal of benefit from those experiences, and I know that some families just have no choice. But I truly believe that happiness lies in finding some way to have the kind of unfettered, unstructured time I and so many of my generation enjoyed as kids, when the only deadline we faced was waiting for darkness and the arrival of "lightning bugs" that we captured in jars and then released...

It was wonderful.


  1. Beth, I agree (I'm one of the newbie Opinion Shapers yet to be published). I am a sahm and I try to balance activity with rest. Today, I find our calendar void of anything and it's good! Working parents are putting their needs ahead of their kids when they schedule back to back camps as "babysitters". And its OK for you to not only think it, but put it on paper. I love your blogs. Keep writing!

  2. Just because summer camps didn't work for you and your kids, doesn't mean they don't work for everyone. My kids had the joy of spending the summer at Florissant's summer camp which included down time, swim time and time with their friends... all for an affordable cost for me. Some of their best friendships were made and enhanced through that daytime camp.