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Dirty Feet and Fire Flies

Positively Speaking

The skid strip on top was well worn and the wheels were larger than normal. That’s what I noticed as the skateboard easily slipped into the empty spot between my feet and the wall on which I sat.

He looked at me, eager to retrieve the apparatus meant only to increase speed and agility, but willing to defer to a reprimand if this unknown woman so chose to offer.

With my best, “I love kids” smile, I reassured him, ‘No worries”, I said as he reached under my legs to grab it before the air was empty of my words.

That’s when I noticed. His bare feet, which would soon be sailing down the walkways were a different color than his face and hands. There was at least a week’s worth of grime and dirt on that kid’s feet. I gasped and had a Mom Moment. “We’re going to clean those feet before bedtime” flashed through my brain right before the ‘what kind of mother...’ thought displaced the initial reaction. Halfway formed, I caught myself. Those filthy dirty feet which made the color of his feet different than the color of his face, were the exact illustration, the meaningful definition of summer joy.

Suddenly I was back in Betzwood housing development. The adults were all distracted and that gave  us kids more freedom to play. Parents gardening, entertaining or sitting on lawns chairs with drinks in hand being entertained, planning vacations, all those activities added up to independence for children and teens.

Good on you barefoot boy with caked on dirt. “You understand summer”, was my final thought as he pushed off to go find an incline and enjoy his skateboard some more.

His trajectory moved my gaze to the kids beyond him sliding down the hills on cardboard. Parents chatted in neglectful ways that temperatures over 80 degrees at 8 o’clock at night encourage. Only the appearance of fireflies could have added anymore Norman Rockwell ambiance to the animated summer tableau.

Ah, fireflies. They are in trouble like the bees are, you know. That means we are in trouble globally.

When I was a kid back East, fireflies were the fairies of summer nights. You knew it was time to go in once the night was so dark you could see only their little glow sticks as they skittered about in the drafts of warm air rising to make way for cooler temperatures.

Now I’m going to share something with you and I don’t want you to think ill of me. We enjoyed the fireflies in the sky, yes. But then we brought out our mason jars with punctured lids and filled them full so as to make our own LED flashlights of an organic composition. Lastly, we took a few, and (here’s the part that needs forgiveness) ripped their little tails off, and stuck them, still glowing on our fingers to look like neon jewels. I can still smell the musty fragrance as we did the deed that released them from life. It was way before ecological sensitivity.

It’s hard to grow as a child without freedom to explore. Many of us early childhood types have known empirically for decades that our children have faced a seriously impactful deficit with not enough freeplay.  Five years ago the magazine Psychology Today published  an article on The Decline of Play and the Rise of Children’s Mental Disorders. (January 26, 2010 blogpost). Research now firmly links depression and anxiety, and a progression towards extrinsic rather than intrinsic definition of self worth, to a lack of freeplay.

OK...let me translate. That means kids who don’t have adequate unsupervised and unstructured play time do not develop the ability to measure life in terms of meaningfulness, they measure it in terms of what they own and what they’ve accomplished and who likes them. They also suffer from depression and anxiety. We’re killing our kids from the inside out. All well and good to control the ozone layer and attend to global warming, but we have structured our kids to be very unhappy narcissists. Not a good thing. Save the earth and leave it inhabited by people who will continue to see exploitation as an option, as narcissists do. A narcissit is more than focused on themselves; they are defined by what they own and who they know on the A-list.

Let me put it simply as we enter this Labor Day holiday which traditionally signals the end of summer and the beginning of more structured life. The key to the future is dependent on children who play without being directed or instructed by adults. Correcting global warming means nothing if we don’t fix  our children’s social environment.
Once upon a time, that was not a revolutionary thought.