We live in times when the innocence of childhood is being lost earlier than ever before. What can we as parents, grandparents and caretakers do to postpone the inevitable? What can we do to create memories and experiences for our children (and ourselves) to treasure for a lifetime?
Get outside as much as possible. It was a beautiful, rainy, Spring day here in Northern Arizona and I needed to return some books to the library. However, when I pulled into the parking lot, I didn't jump out of the car and dash into the library right away. My attention was captured by the site of a small boy, probably about two years old, playing in the adjacent park. Between the library parking lot and the shady park, runs a small gully. On a wet day such as this one, water coursed through that grassy gully.
The object of my attention was dressed in a hooded slicker and rubber boots. He was wading in the water and floating sticks down the stream. Now I could plainly see that on frequent occasions the water was trickling down inside those little green rubber boots. I felt sure that the boy's caretaker (grandmother?) watching from the bank also knew that she would be peeling soggy socks off those little feet when they got home. But weighing the options, she had decided that wet feet were a bargain in exchange for the glorious experiences of the day.
Find a park, drive to the forest, spend time next to rivers, lakes and oceans. Take along a good book and let your child romp in the outdoors. Even if you can't get away very often, make sure that when you do, the outing lasts long enough for satiation to set in. Of course, with some children that might mean spending the entire day at the playground. To avoid unpleasantness at the end, agree on a time limit before you go and give a 15 minute and then 5 minute warning when the time to leave is approaching. And then stick to it!
Don't mind a little mess. Creativity and imagination need stretches of uninterrupted time and sometimes the creative processes require a few props. It can get pretty messy! So make a plan. Designate an area for capricious play, "No toys in the kitchen or dining room!" Only one type of toy out at a time, "Put away all the action figures before you get out the building blocks." Have a time frame, "At 5:00 everybody stops what they are doing and we become a clean team."
Read stories, tell stories. Of course, read to your children. I especially like fables and fairy tales. Reading together is fun and can often provide one of those "teaching moments" giving you the opportunity to discuss the morals and messages behind the story itself.
But don't rely on books alone for your stories. Tell some of your own. Children love to hear stories of the things they did when they were younger. They also love to hear stories of your own childhood. Here's a story my dad used to tell us.
He was one of six children growing up on a busy farm. Everyone worked hard. It was the end of the summer and Grandma (Dad's mom) had been working in the hot kitchen all day preserving food in jars. When dinner came around she was especially tired and cranky. In her super-sensitive emotional state, Grandma felt unappreciated. It seemed that everyone had something negative to say about the meal. She cracked! "The next person who says anything critical about my cooking will be preparing all the meals from now on!"
The table was a quiet place after that. For weeks everyone talked in hushed tones and made pointed compliments about the food, but Grandma had not forgotten her threat. The family was sure of that!
Dad's brother, my Uncle Lee, was the kind of person who liked to stir things up a bit. He knew that dad's other brother, my Uncle Paul, was an impulsive sort and often acted and spoke before thinking. The evil plan was hatched. Uncle Lee dumped a mountain of salt into the pot of beans cooking on the stove and waited for dinnertime to arrive.
Sure enough, when a forkful of those beans went into Uncle Paul's mouth, he shouted out, "Whew, these beans are salty!" Then my dad would mimic the facial expressions of Paul as he realized what he had done and quickly back-pedaled by saying, "Just like I like 'em!"
I can't guarantee that this story truly originated in my Grandmother's farm house, but we enjoyed having Dad tell it time and time again.
Play games. Board games, card games, active games, educational games, silly games, all of them are good. Games are invaluable for learning important life lessons such as sportsmanship. They can also be used to teach a wide range of subject matter-Math, Science, Social Studies, Language, there's a game for all of them. If your budget is tight, check with your local library. If they don't already offer puzzles and games for checkout, maybe they just haven't thought of it!
Are you physically able to get down on the floor to play? Do so if you can. Putting yourself on the same level as a child is powerful non-verbal communication. A child is much more likely to open up when you do so. The experts will all tell you that it is more important to be a parent than a friend to your child, and I will agree with them. The thought I would add, however, is that you do want your child to see you as an ally. Knowing that he or she has someone to talk with and depend on is vital to a child's confidence and self-esteem.
Keep an art box. Put in crayons, paper, markers, scissors, paint, glitter, glue. Also put in differently-shaped cardboard boxes, rolls from paper towels, toilet paper and wrapping paper. Collect pinecones and bottle caps to add. Anything you can think of, really! Find an old sheet that you can use to cover the table or spread out on the floor. Who knows, you may frame that sheet one day!
Have a dress-up trunk.Save old Halloween costumes. Large scraps of fabric become capes or princess gowns. Hats and scarves of all sorts belong in your dress-up kit. Do you have any old make-up that can be donated? Next, find a book of plays or act out your favorite story. You may not even turn on the television for a change!
Use parental-control media devices. Well sure, they are going to see and hear it sooner or later. But the point is to make that later instead of sooner. Find out what the ratings are and then develop a plan for adding more levels as your child matures. Include the children when making the plan. Rules that you helped develop are always easier to follow.
Perpetuate the silly childhood myths such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, etc. It's not lying, it's make believe. Children understand the difference. Many children enjoy pretending they still believe long after the truth is revealed. And most older children will continue to pretend with younger children who still do believe.
Bake cookies. You have to do it, even if they are from pre-made cookie dough. The sticky texture of the dough, the delicious smell wafting from the oven, the sizzle as a too-hot cookie touches a wet tongue, and the extra crispiness of the last batch that got left in the oven too long - all these sensations will contribute to lasting memories of a sweet childhood!Recipe for Peanut Butteriest Cookies
Our childhood years are few in comparison to the decades of adulthood. Special and precious, let's do all we can to make those years positive and memorable.