It was the last day of Spring Break, and my boys’ dreaded requests for screens were starting to rear their ugly heads. The cold weather was keeping us in, but Mama Bear was determined not to give in (even if I needed to do eight loads of laundry and organize a school volunteer list all before the day’s end). “No, boys, I stand by my first NO.”
They asked with more bravado. I played deaf. They said they’d be willing to do chores to earn it. Hmmm, tempting. Nope, I reminded them of our family’s 30-minute iPad limit on the weekends. I was a bullhead, “No means no.”
“But mom, we want to create music on Garage Band!” Ever so clever, they used the key word that Mom likes, create.
How could I say no to creating beautiful music? Oh NO, I can’t back down now! That’s parenting 101: Never change a “no” to a “yes” or forever suffer the manipulations of children trying to turn your “no” into a “yes.” That’s how I got here, anyway, right?
But I did it, AGAIN.
“Ok, as long as it doesn’t become a problem, you boys can ONLY play Garage Band while I finish this project for your school.” My reasoning sounded wholesome, and I was willing to live with the consequences to get this one task off my plate.
Minutes later, oh, the tears! The alligator tears as the boys fought like gators in a mudpit over whose turn it was to record their musical masterpiece. So much for beautiful music!
“DONE. Hand over the iPad. You’re done.” The alligator tears now as big as elephant rears!
That’s when I knew I had to throw them a curveball. Give them a “yes” to something, anything: “Boys, let’s get a pan for your snow.” Not the real stuff. (We live in the South, and trust me, we’d be outside playing if snow ever stuck to the ground.) This was Insta-snow, the fake powder given to us during a neighbor’s visit the night before. Put Insta-snow in a baking pan, fill it up with cars and trucks, and this, my friends, is a Southern boy’s paradise.
Before I knew it, the house had a new, quiet calm. The boys were occupied with their snowboxes, and the sibling nuclear war was over. I began to wonder if there was some added drug to the Insta-snow? Then it hit me with a mix of joy and shame like finding a hazardous Lego before my one-year-old picks it up off the floor.
Free play! That’s the drug. And I need to give my kids more of it! The diagnosis was clear: My kids were over-scheduled and play-deprived. So often I see it on the soccer fields and in school holiday parties. Emotional outbursts, and no family is immune. Kids are no longer given the chance to be kids. To wander, to dream, and because of it our kids are struggling emotionally. We push them into school and activities at earlier ages (guilty), thinking it will give them an edge. Instead, all they’re getting is edgy – emotionally unprepared for the fast-paced world around them.
Psychologists know this, and have been writing about it for years. Studies on laboratory-raised monkeys and rats show when not given room to play, the young mammals develop emotionally impaired, unable to handle emotional stresses and impulses long into adulthood.
And that’s why I let my boys play with snow ALL DAY LONG. They were so engaged they begged to bring their beloved snowboxes to my daughter’s gymnastics class. “YES! Bring them.” By now, three hours into their world of play, they had created alternate universes, cities where traffic jams had to be solved and roads had to be plowed and re-paved. Then another Mommipop moment happened. Another child – usually a wiggle-worm in his mother’s weary arms – wanted to join in. This free play was contagious!
By the afternoon, I was so happy with my free play experiment, I let my younger son skip his nap so he could stay up and play with his brother. I lay on the couch and shut my eyes, listening to the imaginary play of two brothers in a world where they were in charge. And the music was beautiful: They built a bridge with a block from one city to another. They elected presidents. They bartered food. Let me tell you, Australia and the United States were the best of friends!
Apparently, fantasy hamburgers and milkshakes fill your belly too because these snowboxes even made them forget about snacks! It was unreal. The magic continued long enough for me to miraculously make dinner without interruption. My daughter, after waking from her nap, got into the spirit too. In fact, it was me who had to interrupt them to take time for dinner.
That’s why, today, I was so sad to put the snowboxes away and send my boys off to school. We all needed a Spring Break full of free play. Mommy too. Oh, the laundry is far from done. In fact, I never even got it started. Oh NO! Their school uniforms! Tomorrow’s soccer pictures! Todd’s work trip! NO worries. I was too busy enjoying my boys playing and getting along. I’m just glad this snow, this memory of the United States getting along with Australia, will never melt away. Now go PLAY!