(Originally published October 7, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)
October. School is fully back in session and routine has returned. There’s homework, soccer games, hockey practice, piano scales, and that shoebox diorama on inventions.
Which explains why I hear so many people saying, “I miss summer.” Or, “I’m ready for school to be out already.” Or even, “I miss the long, lazy days together.”
But I wonder, is this not just a wee bit of revisionist history?
Do many families today really spend their summer mornings chasing tadpoles, nights catching fireflies and afternoons reading on the porch with a lemonade – purchased from the neighborhood (organic) lemonade stand, no less?
Yes, I have done each of these things with my children. But not all in the same summer.
Like those of many of my friends, my summers tend to start and end strong. There’s a little fishing, summer reading, some sandcastles and maybe a ceramics camp in June. We usher out the season with apple picking, a day in New York, the dreaded trip to the zoo, and the reappearance of that pesky summer reading.
That leaves days and sometimes weeks in between when I find myself staring at three brothers, pleading, “Go outside and do something. Play something, build something, just do something.”
By this time, they are likely ensconced on the couch fighting over the remote control. “But mom, we were just going to watch Phineas and Ferb.” Sure, they want to stay inside to watch a show about brothers who go outside to play something, build something and do something.
And who wouldn’t, the show is fantastic. The hit Phineas and Ferb – about two brothers intent on making the most of summer vacation – has won an Emmy and has been rated the #1 animated show among kids and tweens.
Of course it’s animated. Because as everyone knows, it’s much easier to depict fantastical things using cartoon characters rather than real people. Like a boy who wakes up every morning of the summer and says, “I know what we’re going to do today.”
One of the first things my boys say in the morning is, “what’s for dinner?”
But not Phineas and Ferb. These stepbrothers with pointy heads and green hair usually say goodbye to their mother at the beginning of the show, proceed to invent, create, build, travel, and solve in their backyard and beyond for the remainder of the day – or the 22 minute episode – to greet her again just before the credits roll.
Surely, I am not the only parent of children less ingenious, motivated and productive than Phineas and Ferb Fletcher. Asking their mother how she does it is impossible. Not only is she animated, she’s always busy getting her hair done plus she plays triangle in a free-form jazz band. So I talked to her creators instead.
“There’s so much more competing for kids’ attention these days with computers, video games and the internet than there used to be,” agrees Dan Povenmire, a co-creator. “We are always encouraging our kids to go out on their bikes, or draw or color instead of watching television.”
Feeling confident that these creative giants and I struggle with the same parenting challenges every day, I pushed further. Do Dan and his creative partner Swampy Marsh think that the days of unscheduled summer wandering and adventuring are over?
No, they’re not over. But it’s harder now. “Kids need to be given the time and the space and tools to be bored and then be creative,” says Swampy.
I am then reminded that during his summers, Dan’s mother let him drape the living room with black fabric to use as an outer space background. He would then hang model spaceships and film movies with his Super 8 camera. (I decide against mentioning the cardboard boxes and rolls of duct tape I’ve given my children to enhance their summer experience.)
For his part, Swampy grew up in a “large blended family” and spent his summers outside “exploring” and taking part in lots of “different activities” in order to have fun.
The loose translation of their youth goes something like this, “mother gets out the way, boys find something to do, don’t get hurt and return for dinner.” Of course, Dan and Swampy have turned that into a global creative franchise, I’m just looking to get through a few long days.
One of my greatest frustrations as a parent is that in the absence of scheduled activities, arranged play-dates or specifically required tasks, my kids seem to struggle with what to do next. So I ask, WWLFFD? What Would Linda Flynn-Fletcher Do?
The key to her character is not her great hair, her boundless patience or her admirable involvement in the Mexican Jewish Cultural Festival (Oy-lé! – seriously, you should hear the song). After reviewing several episodes, I see that the real gift she gives to her boys, from my seat on the sofa, is to leave them entirely to their own devices.
Surely this is something I can at least strive for. And, after reviewing several months of my own mothering episodes, I see I’m well on my way.
Just last week I came down to find that my youngest had gotten up at 6:30 so he could have a little time to read before school. “Now that summer’s over I never have enough time to read,” he said. Right. And what fine piece of literature is the boy making time for before third grade calls? The Encyclopedia of Immaturity.
It should come as no surprise that this is the child who extolled to me the virtues of the game created in a vacuum of parental supervision, Sting Pong.
“Well, it’s like ping pong but you play it with no shirt on and if you win the point, then the other guy turns around and you get to hit the ball at him as hard as you can. And, so you see, it ‘stings’ so that’s why we call it ‘sting pong.’ And hopefully it leaves a mark.”
Sure there’s college prep, and then there’s frat prep.
The absence of an overly involved mother has encouraged my older two to take their inventiveness to the great outdoors. They have spent many a summer day cavorting at what Rhode Island has deemed “the dirtiest beach in the state.” This sorry state of environmental affairs surely only enhances the mystery and pleasure boys find in the cool bay where they play “Proof.”
One boy dives down to the bottom of the bay while the others watch him from the dock. When the swimmer emerges from the deep, he must hold in his hand “proof” that he reached the bottom.
The intricacies of the game deepened this past summer. In the latest iteration, the diver emerges from the deep holding “proof” of the dive, and then he proceeds to fling this handful of mud, seaweed, pebbles and sludge onto the boys watching from the dock. The spectator hit with the most murk is the next diver.
And the name of this mentally taxing game? Clearly television has taught them valuable lessons in marketing. “Proof Extreme,” says Thing Two. No surprise then, that this is the child who presented me last week with his own sketch of Phineas and Ferb.
I’ve accepted that unstructured, creative adventuring won’t happen every day in my house and that it probably won’t spawn a hit television series either. But, I realize that a little bit of cultivated boredom can go a long way in rounding out a childhood.
And when I look out my kitchen window, I swell with a certain kind of pride that the boys are out there making their own fun – and I didn’t even have to lock the door. Just don’t tell my pediatrician that the game is called “who can lasso the guy on the bike while he rides downhill.”
If only we had a Super 8 camera.
PS – Here’s a bonus round for the Phineas and Ferb fans out there who love to pick out the guest voice-overs. Sure they’ve had Seth Macfarlane, Cloris Leachman, Ben Stiller, Barry Bostwick, John Laroquette, Sandra Oh, Kevin Smith and Jennifer Grey. And who can forget the duet “I Believe We Can” sung by Clay Aiken and Chaka Khan in the “Summer Belongs To You” episode? Seriously.
Who would be Dan and Swampy’s dream voice-over on Phineas and Ferb?