“Hey, kids, get out!”
Want to do something good for your children this summer? Throw them out of the house.
The Great Outdoors
Growing up in Utah in the 1970s, we were forced to spend most summer days outside. My mother, a single parent raising three sons and a daughter, was blunt and to the point, telling us in a firm voice, “Kids, get out of the house.”
Once outside in the scorching heat, coming back inside, except in the case of real bodily injury, was not an option. If I was thirsty? “Get a drink from the hose,” my mother would say. If I complained of being hungry? “Walk to the corner store and get a snack,” she’d yell from the kitchen without batting an eye.
And woe, oh terrible woe to any of us who were foolish enough to utter that universal adolescent moan of “But momma, what are we supposed to do!? There is nothing tooo dooo outside!”
“Nothing to do outside?” my mother would answer slyly, “Well, you can start by mowing the lawn, then weed the garden, and when you’re finished, ask me again for something to do.”
Why we never saw this coming is beyond me. But after (mostly) completing the assigned chores, no, we did not ask a second time for something to do. We set out into the blazing Salt Lake City summer struggling to entertain ourselves. We worked out how to play and get along with other kids. We learned, by way of experience, how to get through long periods of boredom that are simply a fact of life. And since those snacks at the corner store weren’t going to buy themselves, we learned how to hustle and, for a few bucks, mowed other people’s lawns or weeded their gardens.
A Mother’s Tough Summer Love
Watching my wife raise our four children, it slowly dawned on me how my mother’s tough summer love was essential for her sanity. Men, I believe, have no frame of reference to fully understand how emotionally confining, despite the profound love involved, motherhood can be for a woman. My mother needed that little space in order to keep her softer, maternal side from fraying.
By forcing us outside, my mother encouraged us to solve life’s most fundamental problem: How to get from where we are to where we wanted to be, physically, financially and psychologically, with no coddling involved.
Although I did not see it at the time, mastering these problem-solving skills was only the half of what I reaped from spending lots of time outside. For the last couple of decades, the data has been stacking up, wide and deep, about the benefit of the great outdoors. It turns out that just 20 minutes of consistent, daily outside time helps fight everything from juvenile depression, asthma, obesity and chronic inflammation.
Unfortunately, since the early 1980s, the amount of time American kids spend outside has declined sharply. By 2021, data showed that American children were spending over 90% of their time indoors, much of it in front of a screen while putting food in their faces. This is not good.
Happily, one of the easiest ways to help youngsters help themselves is simple — free-range them kids. If you are worried about neighborhood violence, don’t be. Unless you live in a few badly run Blue cities, violent crime in the U.S. has steadily declined since the 1970s. Do your kids a favor, send them outside with no suggested activity, and let them figure out what to do. Short of criminality or setting the playset on fire, there is no “right” or “wrong” fun, and boredom ranks nowhere in causes of adolescent death.
Wind Under Their Wings
As a grown man I fully appreciate the benefits of being shooed out of the house. Over the arc of my life, I developed a sense of personal confidence and a curiosity about the world which helped me travel and work across some 25 countries.
Our four children are all young adults, but when they were younger, I wish I had been tougher and pushed them outside more. My first son, whom I did not push, tends to be anxious and avoids going out, regardless of the destination. When I encourage his adult self to get outside, he replies matter-of-factly, “No thanks, Dad, I’m an Indoorsman.” I know that children are their own people, but I cannot help but feel I could have done better for him as a father.
This point is driven home to me when I contrast the attitude of my oldest son with my youngest, who I pushed and pulled into many serious outdoor excursions: He is 19, living on his own and enrolled at university while working full-time as an EMT and firefighter.
Let me be clear, I am proud of all my children. They are, each in their own way, moving ahead and finding their way through life. But if I had to do it over again, I believe I could have helped them more, put more wind under their wings, with just two simple words: “Get out.”
Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.
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