During a recent playground conversation with a fellow mom, we were recounting our childhoods. Although we grew up in different areas, our memories were the same -- hours and hours of unsupervised outside playtime with neighborhood friends, solo bike rides into town to buy candy, and walking to school by ourselves by the time we were in second grade. As we hovered over our four collective children, occasionally interrupting our own chatting with a "Don't run so fast!" or "Watch your head!", I reflected on how much life and "playtime" had changed for my own kids in just one generation.
A few days after this conversation, a Boston Magazine article by Katherine Ozment began circling around my Facebook world. Called Welcome to the Age of Overparenting, Ozment wrote about whether her style of parenting -- what has come to be the style for many of us these days -- was contributing to the demise of her own children's freedom and imagination. She wrote:
"I still remember the time my two older brothers built an igloo in our front yard. It had a domed roof and arched entrance, and they strung an overhead work lamp from the ceiling and laid out a small rug so we could all sit in it for hours. Witnessing my children's paltry fort-making skills, I thought, Is this what our kids will remember of winter -- digging little holes in the snow as their mother hovered nearby? Where has the childhood I once knew gone?"
Both the conversation and Ozment's article reminded me of one of our very favorite bedtime books -- maybe a favorite for me because it so beautifully captures what I feel my kids are in danger of losing if I don't ease up a bit -- the freedom and imagination to create worlds of their own, worlds that don't include parents.
Roxaboxen, written by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner Barbara Cooney, tells the story of a very real town in Arizona created out of the fantasy of children. Like any town, Roxaboxen has houses filled with tables and dishes, shops, a town hall and mayor, and even a jail. Roxaboxen is the first place that the neighborhood children run to after school, and is where they spend their summers, building new homes and shops. And even though the town is run by children, they still have rules -- eat as much ice cream as you want, but don't break the speed limit or Policeman Jamie may take you to the cactus-lined jail. Swords made of ocotillo plants serve as weapons in war, sticks stand in for horses, broken glass creates jeweled windows, and small black pebbles buy you anything you want in Roxaboxen.
I love reading Roxaboxen with my sons not only because it reminds me of the freedom of my own childhood, but also reminds me what I want for them and my need to step back a bit and let it happen. I recently asked my older son if he thought it was strange that there were no parents in Roxaboxen. "Oh, Mom, there are parents," he said, "you just don't see them."