My mother kept her beach chair in the back of the car for impromptu trips to Kiwanis. She had her favorite spot where she would set up camp with our sand toys, towels, baby oil, Bain de Soleil SPF 2 for later in the day, and a makeshift ashtray. We five Pennoyer kids would spend the entire day there with her, and at least one of us would cry when we had to leave. Our mother’s beach chair was the sundial, turning to a new angle every so often, her watchful eye on us although we believed we had the run of the place. We leapt around like frogs in the pond, played Marco Polo, couldn’t see through the water until we were close to shore, and loved the random cool spots we could find on the pond’s sandy bottom.
At fourteen I became “too old” to hang out at Kiwanis. However, I enjoyed my first real job slinging burgers there at the old snack bar, and I observed how families operated through a little screened window through which money and food were exchanged with moms and kids with sticky fingers. That summer I listened to “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” whenever I was lucky enough to catch it on the radio, and life was good with my first regular paycheck. I even learned how to play poker on rainy days with the off-duty lifeguards. Kristin, my redheaded colleague, made a mean PB&J, and we kept the place in ship shape. The only fear factor, besides having to talk with the male lifeguards since I was shy then, was the hot oil fryer. I still cringe when I hear a hot fryer in a restaurant, that intense bubbling that threatens to scorch a hand. The snack bar menu was basic, but I was proud of each burger I slid onto a bun. I demonstrated responsibility to my parents, to myself, and to my boss (thank you, Steve Benko, for the opportunity). I felt so independent and mature due to my stint at the Kiwanis snack bar. Although I was a frog who was no longer in the pond, my mother knew where I was, and she was able to “free range parent” while keeping safe watch over my younger siblings as they played in the sand and water.
The 70s and 80s were seemingly simpler times when children’s days were not so structured, and many middle-aged parents and seniors now think those days were better for raising kids. “No cellphones and no Internet – definitely simpler!” someone commented to me recently. In some ways yes, in some, no. For many families, less parental supervision of the 70s and 80s – and even earlier decades – is not the same as the healthy free-range parenting that gets criticized today. The major differences are effective communication and responsibility on behalf of both the parents and the children in a given family.
If the tadpoles don’t know what to do and where to go when they leave their part of the pond, it’s because the adult frogs haven’t been present enough to teach their offspring how to conduct themselves. Kind of like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. At sixteen, boarding school student Holden (spoiler alert) loses his younger brother to leukemia and therefore loses his own way, and readers never get to meet his parents. After he fails out of school, Holden meanders aimlessly around Manhattan by himself. We don’t get to see how his parents taught him how to handle anything much less the loss of a brother. As a result of absent parenting, Holden fumbles along his journey, stuck between childhood and adulthood, no longer a tadpole but not yet a full-grown frog. He wonders where the ducks in Central Park go in winter, just as he wonders where he should go since he has no routine or accountability without school. The school year offers such structure in a positive way, but we parents need to offer some sort of structure in the summer so as to teach children how to live their daily lives with purpose whether it be sheer fun, volunteering, working at odd jobs, or a combination of all three.
Right now, August, is when college freshman begin anew. For their parents, it is the time they have spent eighteen years preparing for as they watch their child-now-young-adult pack for dorm life. The tail of the tadpole is gone, and yet these worrisome questions, among many others, arise in a parent’s mind: Does she have everything she needs? Will he make the right course selections? Will her roommate be a criminal? Will he eat right? Will she be safe on campus? Will he know how to manage his money?
Spending that precious time with our offspring while they are still under our roof has more of an impact on our children than many parents might realize. While the emotional needs differ between an elementary aged child and a teen, that quality face time with your children, regardless of their ages, is key. We need to be present parents and not as concerned about our own social calendar (although grownup time is important, too). Right in the middle of smothering and absent parenting is the ideal so that our children learn to live the definitions of accountability, independence, kindness, manners, humor, respect, responsibility, work and play when they reach the outside world for real, and this has to start when the kids are young. Our job as parents is to love and care for our children, all the while preparing them to leave home with the ability to make smart, healthy decisions. Our children’s job is to love us back, to respect us, and to recognize that growing up in New Canaan is a gift whether their toes are currently in the sand of Kiwanis, a sleep away camp, or the shores of a vacation island a ferry ride away.
Above: Frog photos taken by Darcy P. Smith at New Canaan Nature Center (finger belongs to 9-yr. old Colin Smith)
Below: Five frogs at the New Canaan Nature Center; Photo credit: Darcy P. Smith
Right: My sister Carrie Pennoyer in the swim in a sweatshirt race at Kiwanis Park circa 1984