I took the kids to our skating pond this weekend. It’s finally been cold enough and snowless enough for long enough that I knew the ice would be great. It was. But as usual, we weren’t able to take full advantage of it.
Even after years of trying, my kids are really hesitant skaters. That’s putting it kindly. I spent my time pep talking one arm-clinging kid while the other refused to even put on skates. “How does anyone ever learn to do this?” I wondered. “How did I learn to do this?”
While we were lurching around, a man showed up to hit the ice. He was an excellent skater, just full of amazing swoops and turns, and after a while he swung over to say hi.
“You look like you’ve played hockey,” I said to him.
“Yeah, for a while,” he said. Turns out he’d grown up in Wisconsin, where free skating and pick-up hockey on the town-maintained outdoor rink was what every kid did, everyday, after school. “So we just skated all the time. But,” he said, “really what helped was the teacher strike in January.”
Turns out that one year, the school was closed for weeks and weeks due to a contract disagreement.
“Your poor parents,” I said, thinking about what major disruption that would be to our lives. There would be babysitters, time off work, and endless hours to fill during the coldest month.
“Nah,” he said. “They didn’t mind. My mom packed us a lunch and we were out the door and at the rink every morning by 8 and stayed there until dark. They didn’t see us all day. That’s really when I learned to skate. I had all that time to just play around.”
I loved this story, because it’s something that would never, ever, ever happen these days. No one would send their kid off alone for nine hours with just a bag lunch and no municipal rink would allow an entire school of kids to skate around unsupervised for weeks. There would be counselors and liability waivers and fixed snack breaks and skating clinics and the whole shebang would cost the parents $200/week.
And I’m willing to bet no one would come out of that skating any better than my new friend from Wisconsin.
It all sort of led me back to a question I’ve been pondering lately: When exactly did we break this age-old system of kid skill development? Is it how busy we all are, so we don’t have the time to let kids run free anymore? Is it our quest to make our kids winners, so they get forced into lessons instead of just goofing around? Is it that worrywarts have scared us, so we don’t feel like we can let the kids out of our sight?
I try my best to dismiss all of that, but my kids still aren’t clamoring to head to the pond after school every day. It doesn’t even occur to them. Why are they game to try out the ice only after I propose it, talk them through proper warm dressing procedures, walk down to the pond with them, and drag them around on the ice?
What exactly am I doing wrong? Have I made it all just too hard? Too structured? Too parent-dependent?
I was still working through this train of thought while driving my kids and a friend home last night. We’d spent the day at a Martin Luther King commemoration event and a movie. The skating was still perfect, but I’d scheduled the day in a way so they hadn’t had time to get down to the pond. It was starting to get dark as we pulled into the driveway, but I was curious if I could get them down there anyway.
“Hey guys,” I said. “You think you should go check the ice? Just head on down by yourselves?”
“They all looked at each other for a minute, yelled “Okay!” and sprinted off down the driveway. No one had mittens. No one had a hat. No one had a snack. I didn’t give them instructions or even point out the time and tell them to not stay too long. I didn’t want to distract them with any of that.
I just let them go.
I think I’m beginning to see how this is done.