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Best Summer Ever

There's no small irony in the fact that, while we love them to death, we're depriving our children of one of the richest aspects of our own childhoods: freedom.

This article first appeared in Cottage Life in July 2015.

Having been blessed to grow up with family cottages, I take great pleasure in introducing the cottage experience to friends who did not. So I was delighted when a German friend of mine, Beate, who had no experience of cottages whatsoever, announced that she and her husband and daughter would be alighting upon our Stony Lake island for a visit.

On our first morning together, we three adults sat on the verandah overlooking a tranquil swath of islands and water, as my two sons (three and five years old) and their daughter (four) played on an outcrop of granite beneath us. Beate’s husband, a successful software entrepreneur, drank deeply of the fresh air (and a beer) and pronounced that he had a business idea: an app that would chart children’s whereabouts at a cottage and beep parent’s mobile phones if a child were approaching water or other hazards.

I didn’t say what I was thinking—not on day one of a 10-day visit—but had I, it would have been “Quatsch!” (German for “nonsense”). If there’s one thing that children should experience at a cottage, it’s freedom—from school, schedules, and the overbearing supervision of parents and caregivers.

Middle class urban children lead pretty intense lives. Gone are the days of climbing over backyard fences to play with the spontaneously available neighbours; gone the amble to school under the protection of an older sibling (pretending not to know you); gone those loose after-school hours spent exploring ravines or the cavernous corners of someone else’s basement. Today we have playdates blocked into cluttered family calendars, nanny vans and after-school bike-riding academies, French tutors and creative movement classes.

Researchers at the U of T and Ryerson recently found that one fifth of Grade 5 and 6 students in Toronto spend less than half an hour playing outside on weekdays. The shift in children’s lives has broad implications; as correlations are made with increases in childhood obesity, diabetes, and behavioural disorders, the structure of contemporary childhood has become a public policy concern.

There’s no small irony in the fact that, while we love our kids to death, we’re depriving them of one of the richest aspects of our own childhoods: freedom. It’s a function of the times. As women have fewer children and later in life, and then scramble to combine them with careers, childcare has increasingly been outsourced to third parties that operate under the banners of structure and safety. That’s at parents’ behest: if our kids are not with us, we at least need to know they are safe and that concern looms especially large if we don’t have a whole slew of them. It’s understandable. But left unchecked, the structured and safe regime casts a shadow that obscures, among other things, the precious commodity of free time and the essential state of being that is doing sweet nothing.

And this is where the cottage comes in. After all, it’s the doing nothing aspect of summer that makes it so special. My fondest memories of childhood summers at the cottage are truly unspectacular: lying bellyside down on the dock, one eye wedged between boards, inhaling wet cedar, and counting the fish swimming below; entire afternoons spent scouring bushes for 12 wild blueberries, or watching a thunderstorm approach from miles away; scratching lichen off rocks and scabs off knees, and feeling the soles of my feet gradually transition to leather.

At the cottage, we could read deep into the night and sleep deep into the day. We could also play for hours on end. There were indoor games—like cards, Monopoly, and hair salon—and outdoor sports galore. There were beauty pageants and diving contests and a whole catalogue of unsanctioned activities from spying on skinny-dipping elderlies to stealing cookies from elevated cookie jars. The only rule I remember, and it had the heft of a Biblical commandment, was that an adult always needed to be told if we were going down to the water.

As kids we overlapped regularly with the adults, but their lives ran parallel to and not on top of ours. I remember one summer joining forces with a senior cousin to chart the vast territory of our property. We kept the map hidden, convinced that adults had no idea what fern jungles and collapsed outhouses existed in the outer reaches of our kingdom.

These were good times and important times as well. Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray argues that unstructured play is more important to children’s development than formal education. Why else, from an evolutionary standpoint, would all young mammals spend so much time wasting energy and risking injury to play? They do it to practise survival skills, the relics of which we see in kids’ fascination with weapons and dolls, and to learn social competence. Play requires negotiation, compromise, and empathy: tough lessons and invaluable life skills. The more kids practise, the more skilled they are, and the more skilled they are, the less they need their parents—which ultimately is our mandate.

There will be splinters, whether we are there or not. But it’s as important that they have their time as it is that we have ours.

At the cottage, parents should be able to kick back—have a beer, a snooze, or a real conversation. And that pretty much describes the holiday we had with my German friends. Having lost his two mobile phones to the lake, Beate’s husband settled into a more natural existence of brush-clearing, fishing, and pontificating. Beate did a lot of sunning and sleeping with a book propped next to her. And the kids, well, the kids fired cannons made of driftwood, learned how to dump a canoe (not entirely on purpose), built forts out of towels, found a deer skull, fought over Lego, and reconciled over ice cream. In other words, they had a summer.

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