Back in the day, we never seemed to have enough clothes to wear or food to eat, let alone fancy video games or the latest toy. So we kids played outside all the time. It wasn’t a decision — that’s just what you do when you’re broke. But, if I recall correctly, trees, dirt, and a complete lack of common sense are all free and can make for a solid afternoon.
In fact, I don’t remember ever being bored as a child. I do remember running a lot, and falling down, and getting back up again. I drank from the hose and got that special kind of kid-dirty that adults can’t muster. There was so much dirt and digging and puddles and look-how-far-I-can-slide-in-the-mud. I remember getting hurt and learning to be brave about it. One time I learned why maybe it isn’t a great idea to play with matches on a dry, windy day.
I also remember the frequent flush of envy when other kids went out to dinner or to the movies or whatever it was they were doing without me. I remember hating that I was always playing at someone else’s house. But they had that new robot that talked or a super-cool train set mounted on a board that folded out of the wall. I could have been grateful they shared with me, but, instead, it was a pinch and a gnawing in my gut that couldn’t be reasoned with. Look, at a certain point, you notice that Santa gives the other kids more presents than he gives you. Which is a lot for a little kid to process.
I respect that I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve worked hard and have had some successes in life, but a lot of people work hard and don’t get the same opportunities. Poverty is not just a mindset or spending habits or laziness. It’s an often inherited, insidious cycle that the majority never break. And even if you do break out, it’s still part of you. It’s baggage I still carry — and probably always will.
Fast forward a million years, and now I’m The Dad. My wife and I are educated, we stay busy, and we’re doing all right. Of course, I buy too many video games and I make sure the kids have nice bikes. Last year, we even set up a somewhat pricey zip line out in the woods. Even I will admit that we probably eat out more than we should.
But, you see, I love to scoop them up in the evening and head into town. Dinner, yes please. Maybe a movie? They love Chocolate Moose, of course. It doesn’t even matter to me where, or when, or why. It just makes me happy deep down that my kids get to have the things I wanted so badly as a kid.
However, as The Universe is so fond of reminding me, I’m not actually in charge. Tonight, the kids got home and hit the front door at sonic speed, dropped off their things, and immediately ran into the woods. No hello, no goodbye. Barely looked at me. The cats didn’t even have time to ignore them properly. I can hear their shrill chorus along with all the neighbor kids screaming somewhere off in the trees. Don’t they know I had big plans? Don’t they care that I want to give them the things I didn’t have? How ungrateful.
Like it or not, being an adult means you eventually realize some hard truths. Tonight my kids showed me that all my years of hurting and feeling left out were a giant waste of energy. What was I angry about, exactly? That I had to play outside? In the woods? With my friends? C’mon, dude — that’s the good stuff.
These days, I’m seeing that new, shiny bikes don’t matter, that the talking robot just ended up in a landfill. In the end, I don’t regret not having fancy toys like a wall-mounted train set. My regret is that I spent so much of my childhood focused on what I didn’t have that I never appreciated just how much I did have.
Tonight, we’re not jet-setting in town like I had planned. We’re staying home and eating leftovers, yet again. Sigh. Not because we can’t afford it, but because my kids know what is important. They aren’t hung up on price tags or ambient lighting or locally sourced organic saffron. They prefer romping and stomping and climbing and pretending to be a dog. Don’t underestimate the importance of pretending to be a dog every once in a while.
The big thing is that my kids already appreciate what they have. So, I guess they are having the childhood I wanted after all. Huh. What do you know about that?
It took me 46 years to realize that happiness is about skipping the expensive zip line and playing in the mud instead.
Hey, now the kids are climbing trees. I think I even heard one of them fall. Maybe someone will get their arm in a cast, and all of their friends can sign it tomorrow. What great memories. How lucky would that be?