My parents were the absolute antithesis of helicopter parents.
Coined in the 21st century, the term “helicopter parent” refers to a parent who pays extremely close attention to a child’s or children’s experiences and problems. Helicopter parents are so named because, like helicopters, they hover overhead, always constantly giving input on a child’s experiences, and never fully letting go.
I’m pretty sure that “helicopter parenting” did not even exist in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, in the small town where I grew up, in the 1970s and 1980s. There was no rescuing. There was no hovering. My two older brothers and I had to make our own fun. Chores were chores; playtime was playtime (and only occurred after chores were done); mistakes made were largely ours and ours alone. My family worked hard, and us kids were expected to work hard too. If you don’t believe me, here I am at age four, “edging” the driveway with my bare hands.
Now a mother of 18, 16, and 12 year old children, I cannot help but ruminate on my childhood with a mixture of nostalgia and fear for our society’s youngest inhabitants — for today’s youth, and for future generations. To think of how much our society and its children have changed in just a few short decades is almost overwhelming enough to make the mind close shut. How much childhood as a crucial and formative phase of a person’s life has indelibly changed.
My kids are good kids. They are blessed with good friends and good values. Yet, like virtually every other teenage or “tween” out there these days, a large percentage of their happiness and fun is derived from gadgets literally designed to be “smart” on their behalf. SMARTPHONES. SMART TABLETS. The object for them is often creating funny Snapchats, or employing the most perfectly awesome and dramatic filter on an Instagram picture. Phones or devices are indispensable, coveted possessions. They live in the same small Louisiana parish, yet, just a few short decades later, their lives are so vastly different than mine was growing up.
Looking back, some of my greatest and most durable childhood memories are of my brothers and I making our own fun. That ingenuity and IMAGINATION — the idea that we were making a game out of something completely commonplace and ordinary — was what made playtime so exhilarating to us.
Wednesday Afternoons and Cardboard Boxes
For me, Wednesday afternoons were filled with much anticipation as my brother and I watched for the delivery truck to pull up to my uncle’s furniture store. WHY? Because this meant the new shipment of refrigerators, washers, and dryers would be coming in and Rachal’s Furniture Store would soon resurrect new cardboard boxes. I can still smell the scent of a brand new cardboard box. You know the scent — the rough, dirty, dusty smell of cardboard–with the smooth inside walls and the unblemished writing on the outside labeling the box the item once held.
We knew it was going to be a great day when we would hear our uncle proudly exclaim to a customer “yes…we sure do have one for y’all!” because that box became ours. My brother and I would position ourselves at each end of the box and excitedly haul it to our home only a couple hundred yards from the store. We would usually set our box underneath the carport, and this is when the real fun started (of course ALL of this was only AFTER chores were done).
Little People, Big Decisions
The decisions made inside that box seemed monumental to us. Where would the door be cut out? Where would the windows go? And where would we sit when we were to eat lunch? These seemed like such important decisions to us. And rightfully so, at the ages of 11 & 8, what other decisions would be more important? How empowering this was to our young minds to be able to make these important decisions!
For hours, we would use the kitchen knives, serrated edges of course (remember, no helicopter parents in sight!), to give birth to our new home for the day…or two, if you had a really “good box.” The door was always tricky. Whether to cut the complete door knob out, or to leave a hinged piece of cardboard to use for your doorknob was about the biggest debate my brother and I had in building our cardboard home.
It was great fun. If we were thirsty, a few sips from the garden hose would do the trick. And once the construction was complete, we’d have a few hours left to play in our new home (and wow, what a home it was!). But ya’ know, thinking back now, I remember more details about the excitement of awaiting the great new and perfect box, bringing it home and PREPARING it to play in, than I do actually PLAYING in the cardboard domicile.
Cardboard boxes being dragged down broken sidewalks by two always-barefoot kids (whether during winter or summer), hopping over giant ant piles, racing to get our hands on some serrated-edged knives and drink water straight from the garden hose are great memories from growing up in my small town.
Rainy Days & Big, Fat Pecans
Anyone living in the South knows summer afternoon rains are frequent and often torrential. The Southern summer humidity alone always crushed the hopes and dreams of erecting a cardboard home, and would inevitably lead to cancelled ball games. Still, inclement weather was no match for small country town imagination and play possibilities.
In the midst or wake of a heavy storm, the small ditch that stretched from my father’s garden in the backyard to the front of our property flowing into the drainage system would swell and hold water, and it would flow faster than anything we had ever seen. So, finding the biggest, fattest pecan, aged and hidden under leaves buried in the mud from last season or knocked fresh off the tree still encased in its green thick protective covering, was the next mission…
Why was finding the fattest pecan on the property important?? That meant your BOAT was bigger and stronger…
My brother and I would sit on the rough edge of the driveway of our home and start rubbing away the hard outer shell of that big, fat pecan until we began to see the inside. With knuckles slightly shaved from scraping our fingers against the concrete, we would hollow those pecans like no shelling company could ever dream of doing. Once you had the perfectly hollow shell…that’s when the races started.
From one end of the ditch to the other, the chocolate-brown water flowing and burgeoning with leaves and debris would be soon transformed into the waterway of ultimate Pecan Boat Races! We would run along the ditch, cheering our hollowed pecan boats down the currents with a level of excited urgency that only accompanies an LSU-Alabama match-up. Sometimes a small tree branch or a piece of debris in the ditch would catch one of our tiny boats and delay its journey. When something like that happened, there we were, knee deep in water, rescuing the snagged pecan boat so the race could continue. And wow, what a finish! The winning pecan boat would reach the end of the water course, and hold the coveted title of “Pecan Boat Champion”…that is, of course, until the next big afternoon rain, which would again smother our dreams of sleeping in our cardboard home, and cancel our ball game…BUT which would awaken our excitement of building our miniature boats with bleeding knuckles.
A beautiful and memorable day was always had by all. We always rested well after cleaning the scrapes and cuts incurred during our unsupervised use of serrated-edged knives and the shaving of our pecans. We would drift off to sleep in hopes of waking up the next morning and having the opportunity to do it all over again. Small town fun and small town play, given to us by small town imagination. What a gift a small town was and still is….
To this day, these mini-experiences and colorful memories are an example — a microcosm — of the larger aspects of what makes me happy in life today. The ability to find the beautiful and hidden wonders of this world begins in childhood, grows during youth, and, if nurtured correctly, blossoms into invaluable ingenuity, originality and resourcefulness in adulthood. This type of imagination cannot be taught in schools — it is God-given and must be cultivated, encouraged and cherished. I am in no way pronouncing or forecasting the death of childhood imagination at the hands of smartphones and tablets. But I do fear that the imaginative spark so inherent in a small child to “seize the day” and make his or her own fun is being stifled and snuffed out slowly.
While I’ve never made my children edge my driveway with their bare hands (seriously, they would LOL at my suggestion and probably post it on Facebook), I do hope that I can impart to them and instill in them the importance of relishing the hidden treasures in our lives. Of tapping into that power, uniqueness, and ingenuity ingrained in all of us. The courage to actually laugh, not write LOL. The insight to realize that there is more to life than what is right in front of their faces, or on their screens. The imagination to take a rainy day and transform it into a Pecan Boat Race, or a cardboard box into a child’s dream mansion. And the wisdom to take advantage of the many opportunities that simply living on God’s green earth, in a small town, brings.