Let’s Go On An Adventure

Over my years as a therapist I have spent many hours talking with teenage boys.  One of the phrases that I have heard over and over again is, “this is boring.”  I have heard parents complain about children who have bins full of toys, yet describe themselves as bored.  How is it possible that in our society of 24/7 entertainment anyone would be bored?

I recently listened to the White Horse Inn podcast that argued boredom in our culture stems from the over abundance of entertainment.  They argued that our desire to have every experience be “THE” experience cheapens the value of all experiences.   Even in churches and youth ministries we are constantly searching for the next big thing.  The next exciting program or activity that will draw in more kids or parents so they can know how exciting Jesus is.  We take high school students to camps and mission trips filled with emotional worship, funny speakers, and really gross games.

The problem is, this is not real life.  Real life is mundane, it is getting up to go to work or school everyday, it is doing the dishes, laundry, and homework.  Faith is hard, church can be normal, and even Jesus was not exciting all of the time.  In my opinion the problem with the “bored” children is that they have never learned to imagine.  Toys don’t require imagination these days.  Computer graphics create vast worlds in infinite detail, none of it imagined by the players.  It is nearly impossible to find a plain lego set that can be formed into whatever a child imagines.  They are all movie themed and designed to be built into some specific object.  Even infant toys are full of bells, whistles, lights, and buttons.

I was pleased to sit and observe some kids developing their imaginations the other day.  I felt like one of those nature photographers catching the final footage of an endangered species.  I sat very quietly hoping they would not notice me, so as not to disrupt their play.  They played for about an hour with nothing more than a bucket tied to a rope and water.  I am not sure what they were doing but they were all fully engaged and involved.  Somehow they all had a role to play but no one told them what it was.  There was yelling, laughing, jumping, and running; it was great fun.  They were having a true adventure.

A true adventure is not some overhyped, artificially produced experience of which we are spectators.  A true adventure is something we are actively involved in.  It is a path that unfolds before us based on the shared experience of family and friends.

This was not the latest and flashiest toy.  It was a white bucket tied to a rope, but it lead them on a wild adventure full of excitement and joy.  I hope parents will say, “let’s go on an adventure” by giving their families the time and space to imagine.  Let’s cut down on some of the adult organized “exciting” activities, and begin to create our own adventures in the backyard.

How does your family find true adventure?

What toys helped you to imagine as a child?

The Fortress of Solitude

Several years ago I read the book and watched the movie “Into the Wild”.    It is a true story about an upper middle class boy.   After graduating from college he gave away what was left of his college fund and wandered around the United States.  He told no one where he was going and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness.  My favorite quote from the movie goes like this, “It is not as important that a man be strong, as it is that he feel strong.

Iknew a boy recently who did not feel strong.  If you looked at him you would not think it. He was a football player, confident, and bigger than most.  Despite outward appearances however he believed that he was weak.  The worst part was not that his strength was being stolen, but that he was giving it away.  A recurring theme from our conversations was how he would beat up anyone who said something bad about his mom.  He was constantly talking about how tough he was.  He listed off the number of fights he had been in and the times he had been suspended from school.  I really liked this boy but was becoming frustrated with his need to portray himself as tough and “manly”.

I began to realize that although he was strong, athletic, and likeable-he did not feel strong, athletic, or likable.  It appeared to me that he felt weak, awkward, and hated.  His fragile view of self required that he project strength and aggression.  If he were to project what he really believed, that he was weak, awkward, and hated, people might agree with him, and he could not handle that.  So, he built the most “manly” façade he could come up with.  This façade was designed to convince others and himself that he was strong and not to be messed with.

Unfortunately, it is very common for boys to build a façade of “manliness” designed to keep people from knowing who they are on the inside.  In their book, “Raising Cain”, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson call this the fortress of solitude.  This façade begins, from a very young age, to isolate boys from emotionally connected relationships.  Boys grow up to be men who can hold long conversations about what is happening in the world of sports.  However, they have a very hard time identifying what is going on inside of themselves.

I hope that parents will teach their boys what it means to be a man.  We can teach our boys that being a man may include physical strength.  We can teach our boys that being a man also includes emotional strength.  A man of emotional strength is able to look inside himself to acknowledge the good and the bad.  He is also willing to include those he trusts in this inner life.  It is this vulnerability that is a great marker of “constrained power”(meekness).

Occupy My Street

I was born in a small midwestern town and lived in that town until my family moved to Southern California when I was in fourth grade.  I have very fond memories of playing outside with the neighborhood kids for hours at a time.  I remember games like ghost in the graveyard, annie annie over, and freeze tag.  I even remember walking down the road with my friend to fish in the pond that was located in the corn field adjacent to our subdivision.  I returned to visit that same small town several years ago for a friend’s wedding and drove through the old neighborhood.  I expected to see kids running through the neighbor’s back yards and to walk down to the pond in which I had caught my first fish.  I was surprised that the pond was no longer there, as the field had been developed for houses.  More disappointing was the emptiness of the street.  There were no kids outside playing with one another.  Have all the young kids grown up?  Are there no kids left in this neighborhood?

Several years after this visit when I was working as a therapist for teenagers, I began to get a better understanding of what happened to this neighborhood.  I was talking to a young man and I asked him what he was good at.  He thought for a little while and said, “video games”.  I said, “oh cool, what are some other things you are good at?”  He thought for bit longer this time, and said, “I am only good at video games.”  I was pretty shocked by his belief that he was only good at video games.  He was well liked among his peers, intelligent, handsome, and physically fit.  Yet, the only strength he could come up with was video games.  Since those first days as a counselor I have run into many other young men with a similar view of self.

I believe that this limited view of self is caused in part by the decrease in outdoor free play for many children today.  A 2004 study by Rhonda Clements at Hofstra University surveyed 830 mothers regarding their level of outdoor play as children and that of their children.  85 percent of the mothers agreed that children today play outside less than children did in years past.  70 percent of the mothers reported playing outside everyday as a child compared to only 31 percent of their children.  The survey found that the number of children playing games with child created rules has dropped from 85 percent of the mothers to 33 percent of their children.  The only outdoor activity that children in the survey did more than their mothers was adult organized youth sports.

I strongly believe that children, especially boys need to be outside engaging in child created play.  The three main benefits that I see from this type of play are self-confidence, imagination, and social skills.

Self-Confidence:

            There is no better place for a child to test the limits of their abilities than the outdoors.  This could be climbing the ladder to the slide for a young child, making it all the way across the monkey bars for a school aged child, or taking on the older kids in a basketball game for a middle schooler.  These activities are physical, mental, and psychological challenges that push a child just one small step past their current ability.  These small steps over a number of months or years build into a series of successes or failures that allow children to take on the challenges of the future.

Imagination:

            The great outdoors is filled with opportunity to increase imagination.  This may include the hiding place under the porch stairs used to dig for treasure.  The snake habitat made from a puddle, grass clippings, and rocks, or the delicious mud pies served up to mom and dad.  These child created exercises in make believe are the classroom in which future artists, teachers, engineers, and, doctors hone their skills.  The skills necessary to create new masterpieces, work with the difficult learner, create a bridge or heal disease.

Social Skills:

            Possibly the most important benefit of child created outdoor play are the lessons of how to get a long with others.  Children will argue forever about the rules of a game before it ever begins.  They may even stop in the middle of the game to renegotiate expectations.  The temptation as parents is to stop the bickering, and make the rules for them so they can get on with the play.  Remember though, that the bickering is the point.  The most social learning is taking place during the negotiation.  This is when they are learning to communicate, take turns, and accept another’s point of view.

Sometimes it seems like we must do more, more, and more for our kids.  I propose you do less.  Cut out a sport or two, scale down the lessons, and stay home a few nights a week while the kids create a world of play in your back yard.  We could call it the “occupy my street” movement.  Sounds fun!!