Adventures in Babysitting

The events of this past weekend have seriously prompted me to reevaluate my ability and desire to ever be a successful parent.

I like kids - I really do. And kids have always generally taken to me. I'm the adult that doesn't talk down to them; the one that never, ever, underestimates them; the one who encourages adventure and imagination; the one who, more often than not, becomes a co-conspirator rather than a rule-abiding grown-up…maybe that was the problem, maybe I am far too immature myself to be an effective authority figure.

It's not like I don't have experience with kids. I was recruited at the tender age of 13 to babysit my younger cousins from the time they were infants. As a teenager I worked after school at a children's center and during the summers as a camp counselor. Throughout college I worked as a nanny for a family that became my own and who, even now after 10 years, still keeps in touch with me. Since then, I have been close to an ex-boyfriend's little niece and always have had fun hanging around with my young cousins and my friends' children.I used to think I related really well to kids (I even seriously considered a career in child psychology at one point) - they're fun and energetic and creative and silly.

At least that's what I always thought. Either, A.) I have always been fortunate enough to be responsible for extraordinary kids or B.) I have been out of the professional childcare loop for too long and have lost my touch. In any case, serious self-doubt has reared its ugly head.

My weekend was spent with two boys. Brothers. An 11-year old and a 9-year old. The three of us (plus one dog, one un-trained puppy and two cats) were together from Friday evening until Monday morning. Yeah, I know, I didn't think it sounded like a long time either. I thought, "okay, this is going to be fun - they're at great ages!"; old enough to have the attention spans to really grasp interesting activities but young enough to still be silly and playful without any teenage angst or self-consciousness. Plus, they live on the top of a mountain in the middle of the woods! How could we NOT have fun!?

When I got there Friday evening, I found the boys in the frigidly air-conditioned rec room playing video games. Gradually, I coaxed them away from the gigantic glowing screen of Mario and Donkey Kong to come outside and play with me and the dogs.

I suggested we go in the woods and scout out some good climbing trees, but they informed me that they were not allowed to go in the woods during the summer (snakes and ticks and stuff I guess).

So I suggested we hold races on the lawn to see how fast we all were, but it was too hot and races were too boring.

"Why don’t we scrounge around for some firewood so we can build a campfire tonight?"After all, what child can resist the temptation of fire!? I know I can't!These children resisted. "We've never built a campfire…it's probably not a good idea. It's hot out here, let's go back inside".

Stunned, I mutely followed back into the chilly interior environment, where my periodic pleas for board games and art projects went unnoticed as colorful electronic characters cavorted on the screen to a soundtrack of bleeps and bloops.

Later that night we went out for dinner. The boys hopped in the car, immediately stuck headphones over their ears and turned on the dvd player. Okay, I guessed they weren't interested in conversation. We got to the restaurant and as soon as we were seated, the boys whipped out their Nintendo Game Boys. Skeptical of this behavior, I inquired as to whether this was normal practice and if they were permitted to engage in video game activity at the dinner table with their parents. I was told, quite matter-of-factly that this was just how things were done. Duh. Otherwise, they might get bored waiting for their food. Ah yes…silly me.

After dinner I did get them to agree to go to the top of the parking garage to lean over and look down at all the little cars and twinkling lights. They weren't impressed. By the time we returned home, it was well past their parent-regulated bedtime and I mistakenly assumed they would be gleefully grateful at thwarting the schedule and would mount little resistance in going through the normal bedtime rituals. Wooooooo boy! "Mistaken" doesn't even begin to cover it.

They demanded ice cream. I explained that because it was so late and already past their bedtime, that we would have ice cream tomorrow instead. You would've thought I had told them we were going to eat nothing but broccoli for the next three days…in a dark, damp dungeon…with rats scurrying over our feet. The protestations were monstrous. While the 11-year old threw chairs around the room and punched and kicked the walls, the 9-year old went digging in the freezer for the forbidden ice cream. For a minute I just stood there incredulous and then nearly burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all! Eventually they calmed down when they realized I was actually serious and they would NOT be getting any ice cream that night. Good lord.

Over the rest of the weekend, they refused to go to the pool, they turned their noses up at a water balloon fight, they declined a hike at the nature preserve...they even turned down my offer to have some of their friends over to play and hang out. They ate nothing but various processed breakfast carbohydrates (including, but not limited to, Pop Tarts, cinnamon rolls, muffins, frozen waffles, and coffee cake) all weekend and just generally whined and complained about being bored unless they had a screen in front of them. Oy! What little patience I have, was gravely tested this weekend.

Okay, I know every generation thinks their childhoods were so much better than the ones following, but c'mon! besides having this annoying entitled attitude due to being hopelessly spoiled, these children were clearly over stimulated with modern technology and wouldn't know how to play Red Rover or build a tree fort if their life depended on it!

Yes, we watched television as kids. Especially on Saturday mornings when we would get up at the crack ass of what and lay on the floor with a bowl of cereal watching 4 hours of non-stop cartoons until our eyes felt like dried up raisins and our brains buzzed. But normally during summer vacation we were out the door by 8 o'clock and would come back home when the streetlights came on (that was the rule). Sometimes we'd stop back in for lunch. Sometimes not. We would build dams and bridges down at the creek and run through the storm drains. We would climb the enormous oak tree out in our front yard and pretend we were orphaned kids who lived up there. We would organize neighborhood olympics and circuses and parades. We would have scavenger hunts in the vineyards and climb the cherry trees in the orchard next to our house (the owners didn't mind, they said all our noise kept the birds away).

We would ride our bikes endlessly (always with a playing card attached to the wheel to make that cool motorcycle noise), sometimes down to the beach, sometimes over to my grandparents, sometimes we'd just ride as far as we could until our legs gave out. We played games of Red Rover and Mother May I and Red Light Green Light and Duck Duck Goose and Hide N' Seek and Kickball and Ghost in the Graveyard and Capture the Flag. Sometimes we would spend entire days in the swimming pool, coming out for dinner all wrinkly and purple-lipped. One summer we spent our days constructing a fort in the patch of woods near the train tracks. And another time we built a table WAY high up in a spruce tree at my neighbor's house so we could escape up there to play cards.

Fortunately, we lived in a neighborhood FULL of kids. Mostly we all got along. (except for the Great War of '85, but even that was eventually forgotten) The great thing was, there was very little, if any, adult supervision. Our parents didn't entertain us or cart us around to various lessons and activities or plan scheduled "play dates". We did our own thing and it was punishment if we had to stay indoors (of course we didn't have air conditioning so it was hot as Hades in the summer). I'm not saying things were perfect. I'm sure there were times when we complained about being bored. But you didn't complain too often, because if you did, an adult would give you something to end the boredom which usually included some kind of manual labor! We balked at the chores assigned to us (as every kid on the planet does), but we did them with the promise of going back outside to commence play as soon as we were done.

Maybe this past weekend I just wasn't being fun enough or creative enough to get them excited about anything other than video games and television. Maybe they were just bored with me and not life in general. I hope so, because it makes me sad to think that they are wasting their childhood in front of endless varying screens of simulated activity.

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