On the feasts of Saint Monica and Saint Augustine they sped away, our daughters, one to Dallas, the other to Rome, leaving me with my usual August ailment—the back-to-school ache of homesickness for children now abruptly vanished. This same malady has hit me in varying degrees of intensity since our oldest child left for nursery school, and so I know what to expect. But I also know I cannot avoid it or erase it; I can only subdue it.
Thus with the oft-missing car keys back in my purse and the phone relatively silent, I burrow into the fall calendar and wait for the hole in my heart to grow smaller. September and October, like January and February, are prime work months; work diverts my attention, allowing the stretch of weeks until the next vacation break from school to become bearably shorter. I fool myself, too, by calculating in weeks rather than months. By the time the reader sees these lines, I will have only a few weeks to wait until everyone again is safely under one roof.
Grieving over children’s leave-takings is surely a universal parental experience. All the more reason, then, to question, as does Cathy Rindner Tempelsman in a recent Wall Street Journal article (August 20), the peculiar American phenomenon of so stuffing our children’s schedules that there is no time left for parents and children to spend together. Tennis lessons, soccer practice, karate lessons, computer camp, French camp, gymnastics camp are not only for high school students. Their counterparts exist for tykes of three- and four-years-old.
When I was a child, I attended weekly piano lessons and Girl Scout meetings. In the winter some of us took Saturday morning ice skating lessons. I was not especially fond of any of these activities, and given a chance I would have stayed happily at home with my books and my drawing pencils, gone up the street to play dolls with my friend Judy, or played dress- up and talked to my grandmother while she worked at her old treadle sewing machine. I went to my lessons and meetings, however, because my mother thought I should. I grudgingly agreed with her that, lacking talent as I did, I nonetheless ought not to grow up to be an ignorant dolt who had never been exposed to music lessons. As for Girl Scouts, I do not recall that my friends and I ever looked forward to scout meetings in Mrs. Hutton’s basement, where our enthusiasm waned in proportion to the rise of Mrs. Hutton’s temper; but there was some unspoken assumption that we ought to humor our mothers, who saw heroism in our collecting badges toward the Curved Bar and necessary socialization in our getting together to drink Cokes and work on projects. I never noticed any social skills that came out of Mrs. Hutton’s basement; still, with due respect to Juliette Low, there was some benefit in the badges and some compensation when Mrs. Hutton passed out Hershey bars. The skating lessons, I suppose, instilled a modicum of grace, offset at half-time, no doubt, by our intake of Crackerjack while the Zamboni machine resurfaced the ice.
Duties to mothers blessedly eased up in summer, when our time became nearly all our own, with only the intrusion of the daily morning passage, in Judy’s DeSoto, to swimming lessons, followed by vending machine treats of vanilla fudge, Milk Duds, or Junior Mints. The rest of the day was ours— grilled cheese sandwiches on Judy’s screened porch, playing with her doll-house and trading Nancy Drew mysteries. Or, sometimes even better was an afternoon all by myself, lazing on our porch glider and reading Anne of Green Gables. My childhood summers were exactly like the one depicted in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, in which Mom brings lunch to Calvin and Hobbes, who are playing in Calvin’s tree house. As they munch their sandwiches, Calvin suggests, “What do you say we break out the comic books while we think up our big plans?” Hobbes is delighted. “Oh, boy!” he replies. The final frame shows the friends sitting in their tree house, poring over their comic books. “It’s looking like a good afternoon, ol’ buddy,” says Calvin. “I love summer,” says Hobbes.
Duties to mothers are part of growing up. There are indeed certain activities that foster deportment, refinement, athletic skill, and so on. In the same way that my mother sent me off to this or that lesson, so I have inflicted similar activities on my children, all in the name of things being “good for them.”
What Cathy Tempelsman criticizes, however, is a much more intense programming of children’s time, in which children have not a minute to them-selves or to spend with their mother and father—the very people, after all, whose time would most benefit them. The trend toward pushing children into schedules and organized activities earlier and earlier in life began in the 1960s, it seems, with programs such as Head Start. It has accelerated to such a pitch that if parents have not enrolled their child in a pre-school for three¬year-olds, they are terrified that he will fail in kindergarten. That the child goes to pre-school sucking his thumb, dragging his blankie, and needing help in the bathroom does little to persuade parents that the child’s school debut is considerably premature. They fear that without so-called socialization and language and math skills, their child will turn out to be not only intellectually deficient but also a nerd, unable, ultimately, to gain admittance to a good college.
How different is this view from the one voiced years ago by our children’s wise kindergarten teacher. On the first day of kindergarten for our youngest child I explained apologetically that I had not sent her to nursery school, and I hoped that she would be up to speed with the other children in the class. Mrs. Scherpenberg, herself the mother of seven children, dismissed my concern with a wave of the hand. “Get off your guilt trip, Mother,” she said. “You don’t seriously think, do you, that your child would be better off in nursery school than at home with her mother? Where do you think she would learn more?” Affirmed in my own instincts, I never again doubted that young children are better off at home than anywhere else. And now, after 25 years as a mother and through the experience of countless leave-takings big and small, I further would conclude that children of any age through adolescence are generally better off in spending far more tie at home than they do — and far more time with their parents.
Placing children at the cutting edge of competence does not mean cramming them into yet another camp to sharpen computer skills or signing them up for still more gymnastics or ballet. It does not mean football teams for first graders or SAT prep courses for high schoolers. It rather means, I suspect, years of reading to children, talking to them, taking walks with them, eating meals with them, saying prayers with them, working with them on chores, looking over their homework. It means time on their own, time for wondering, reflecting, playing, for going fishing with Grandpa or cooking with Grandma, time for dreaming and doing nothing. Silence is as necessary to a child’s spiritual life as it is to an adult’s. Without time to ponder and time to listen, the interior life, whether of child or adult, dries up.
There are two reasons for parental zeal to schedule a child 24 hours a day. The first is the migration of women into the workplace. Although I do not intend to nag working mothers, there are some facts, nevertheless, that women— and men—surely must face. Primary among these facts is that children must be somewhere, even when mothers work. The question is where?
Parents, realizing the necessity for supervision, turn to daycare, pre-school, camp, after-school classes, and more daycare. I know of a Montessori school, across the street from a hotel where we often stay in Dallas, where parents deliver their children as early as seven in the morning and do not retrieve them until six or seven in the evening. From our hotel window we watch the morning parade — BWs and Volvos; alighting from them are mothers or sometimes fathers, carrying babes in arms, urging reluctant toddlers out of the car and up the steps into school. The parents’ plight may be real enough. They often would choose otherwise for their child. All the same, one may properly ask the parents: would you like to be in daycare or in some other organized activity nearly all of your day? Parents sometimes place their children in situations which they themselves would find intolerable. I suggest that parents, mothers particularly, cannot accept as permanent the daycare solution, no matter how euphemistically it is dressed up as school or camp. Women will need to exercise their highest skills of creativity in addressing this problem. That we live in a computer age may prove to be a blessing. Not every job requires an outside office. With ingenuity and a computer, more women may find ways to work at home.
The second reason that the parents overbook their children’s lives is, plainly, fear of rearing one’s own children. With the insidious invasion of family life by the welfare state has come a corresponding growth in the almightiness of the expert. In all kinds of ways the confidence of young parents in their ability to rear their own children is undetermined, so much so that a young mother can actually believe that her three-year-old is in more expert hands with a pre-school teacher who barely knows him, and whose care is diffused among a number of children, than he is in the hands of the mother who has riveted her entire attention on him since the moment of his birth. Who knows this child better than his mother? Who is the expert?
As I await the homecoming of our far-flung children, I reflect on what there is never enough of: time. If I were advising young parents, I would say, do not waste that gift of time you are given. Spend it with the children who are precious to you. Your children are the subject on which you are the expert.