Maybe this is true for most people (but I’ve never conducted a poll) – when I think about my childhood, what I remember best is the intensity of play. We were faeries, witches, pirates, spies, explorers, we swung from the trees and hid behind rocks and faced terrible dangers with swords aloft, tearing around the neighborhood backyards or round the park down the lane. Everything else – suppertime, bedtime, school, homework – was just an interruption of this play. When I was playing, I was free and happy. As I got older my parents found the degree to which I lived in my head a bit worrisome, wondering if I was really taking in the world around me. (I wasn’t). And I remember how frustrating, how infuriating, how terrible it was to have to stick colored bits of paper on another piece of paper, or sing some stupid song while clapping, or practice handwriting, or read aloud about otters in french, denied the bright outdoors and the thrilling world of goblins and centaurs and fiendish enchanters I could enter if only the grownups would leave me be.
Sad to say, I haven’t changed much. I still want most of all to be left to the stories in my head, and The Rest Of Life still sometimes feels like an interruption. This gives me a lot of empathy for my children’s passionate play, but also means we are at cross-purposes a great deal of the time. Because I’m not very good at the whole “accepting reality” thing, I often think how life would be so different if we had a backyard. They could go out and play and I could write. As it is, we have to take turns. Every now and then we end up on parallel tracks and they are playing with their dragons and I am playing with mine and we are all entirely content, but it’s a tricky balance and ultimately, parenting requires a level of practicality and selflessness that I am not very good at.
My kids are four and two now and they are all about dragons and dinosaurs. The older one concocts an exciting world of danger and derring-do and the little one doesn’t quite get it but he gets the thrill of it and runs around after his brother, mostly saying and doing whatever he is told to say and do, just like my younger brother did with me. My whole heart is with them on the absolute importance of play, and yet my role now is inevitably that of the Horrible Big Fun-Killer. You have to eat your lunch first, I say. You are filthy, you need a bath, I say. We can’t go outside yet, I need ten more minutes, I say. It’s bedtime, it’s time to go, it’s time to stop, hurry up, slow down, put that stick down before you hurt somebody, that isn’t our yard, stop it, come here, don’t touch that, don’t you dare throw that, I’m going to count to three, one two three get over here right now we are going HOME you are in big trouble mister. That’s me.
And I wish that I wasn’t always saying no. I wish that one day I could just say yes to everything. Yes, you can have a real sword. Yes, you can jump off the roof with the wings you’ve made out of a cardboard box. Yes, we can have ice-cream for breakfast, jump on Daddy at 6am, drive cars on the stove-top while I’m making coffee, play with matches, take everything out of the trash and put it in the bathtub to see which things float, go to the park naked, knock on the neighbor’s door and roar like lions when they open up, put rocks through their mailbox, swing large sticks near our friends’ heads, go barefoot all day, pretend that guy over there is a t-rex and kill him, pee on that anthill, ride our bikes in the street, get permanent tattoos, cut down that tree with scissors, have chocolate chips for supper, pour all the bathwater onto the bathroom floor, keep on playing, just keep on playing, and never, ever go to bed, yes we can do that, yes, go for it, yes.