Summer freedom can be a bit of a chore
I can’t exactly open the back door and release my son into the inner city. What am I going to do with him?
Alison Jameson at Poolbeg Lighthouse. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
When my sister was six, she owned a bantam cock and two hens. The cock was small, even by bantam standards, handsome and disagreeable. His companions were two plain girls, pear-shaped and docile, more like maiden aunts than lovers.
They all enjoyed a very pleasant time together, scratching in the warm grit of the yard and producing an occasional egg the size of a marble. Their cosy world was rocked, however, when my sister, ever enterprising, decided she would enter them in the agricultural show in Oldcastle.
“Sure, isn’t he a fine little fellow?” my mother said, keeping her distance (earlier in her life a rooster had landed on her head, and he had to be beaten off with a pitchfork).
On this hot Saturday in August we piled into the car with great excitement. We had picked the slightly better-looking of the two girlfriends to accompany him and we set off with all the optimism of Dick Whittington.
Deep down, of course, my sister was hoping to win some money. Cute and all as the animals were, they and we were raised to earn a living. Animals were always a natural part of our lives, but so too were general scheming, plotting, and self-organisation.
There was no structure to our summer holidays: no summer camps, no organised play dates, no creative workshops. There were times when the boredom was overwhelming, but apart from holidays at the sea it never really occurred to my parents to organise anything specific in terms of fun.
If we were lucky enough to have the gift of freedom, then the least we could do was to figure out how to use it. Except I don’t believe they ever actually thought about it. So we organised ourselves and left the adults out of it.
I’ve lived in Dublin now for longer than I’ve lived in the country, and I have absolutely no regrets about raising my son in a city. I’m not really concerned that he will miss “turning the hay” or seeing a cat have some kittens.
But now that the sun is out and the school holidays are fast approaching, as an urban working mother I am beginning to feel a growing sense of panic. Opening the back door and releasing him into the inner city is not a good idea, but I do have a question: given my distaste for expensive organised fun, how can I give him play and freedom?
In other words, what in God’s name am I going to do with him?
Writing for the New York Times recently, Pamela Paul recounted her experience of summer camps. As a natural introvert – yes, there are a few of us about – she tried several and hated them all unreservedly.
“How about an iPad camp?” someone suggested. Say that again? No, actually don’t. Are parents really paying money so that their children can stay glued to an iPad? And what would they learn? They’re all experts already.
“A Lego camp?” says someone else. Slightly better, but for a child who plays with Lego every day of his life, it’s not that interesting.
Where is the big field for the kids to run in? Where is the hill they can roll down, laughing hysterically? Where are the crazy, made-up games? The schemes, the plans and the mischief? Where is Red Rover and could he please do us all a favour and come over?
This weekend my son went to a brilliant, farm-themed birthday party. Now if I’m honest, the idea of farm animals parading through a nice house in Dublin did strike me as a bit batty, but it was a great success and he came home delighted. He had petted a lamb, a piglet, some bunnies and what he called “two gerballs”.
I’m still searching for the perfect social outlet for him over the summer, and I do worry that if we organise everything, our kids will grow up to be less resourceful people.
And now he wants to know if we eat piglets, “because I wouldn’t want to eat a little piglet”, he tells me. The same city boy would sell his mother for a smoky rasher.
As for the angry bantam, he came home even cockier, with a red rosette. And my resourceful sister got a fiver.
Little Beauty by Alison Jameson is out now in paperback. Jennifer O’Connell is on leave