Besides instructing our kids about the basic fundamentals of getting through the day without eating things off of the floor and why coloring the dog with permanent markers is not allowed, parents have the unenviable task of entertaining our children. In spite of the massive collection of toys in our house, parents are called on to be domestic social directors. From sun up until sun down, we do our very best to make sure the docket is full of meaningful activities for our kids to be a part of outside of banging on pots and pans and watching the Dora DVD for an 67th time. We do our best to fill the days scheduling play dates, soccer practice, t-ball, and karate, trips to the library, and planning vacations. Our kids’ calendars are filled to make sure they have the “proper” mental stimulation their developing minds apparently crave according to talk show hosts and celebrity authors.
But sometimes your library card goes missing (probably hidden by the tiny person tugging at your jeans) and a rainy day has canceled practice. It’s those times, when your child looks up at you with those eyes that say ‘Ok, now what Dad’; you need to rely on your ability to improvise.
I’m not sure what prompted me to sit with my daughter on our front porch to count passing cars but I’m sure it had something to do with avoiding a possible grand mal seizure if I had to watch one more episode of Caillou. I had run out of manufactured stimulation, the staccato popping of the Fisher Price vacuum cleaner had lost its pop, and 47 out of the 64 Crayola’s had been snapped in two. So in the same vain my Dad created games like Coma and dug a hole in our backyard and called it a “swimming pool”, Hannah and I started counting cars.
I took Hannah outside and sat her next to me at the top step of our front porch. Our attention tuned vigilantly to the street in front of us. As the first car zipped by, we counted. 1. As if we were automobile census takers, we continued to count the cars going by. We eventually moved on to shouting out the colors of the passing cars and eventually graduated to naming the manufacturer. I pointed out Hondas, Fords, Volkswagens, and any other make that happened by our line of sight. Adding to the anticipation for the next car was our neighbor’s boxwood shrub which was the size of a small moon. The shrub eclipsed the street so any car coming down the road seemed to emerge from the bush and directly in to our sightline.
There was never a scheduled time for the two of us to go out and count the cars. Just as the game was born out of spontaneity, so was too was the prompt to walk outside, plop down on the top step, and wait for a car to drive by. It was as simple of a thing to do with my daughter as was my Dad shoveling a hole in our backyard and filling it with water when I was a kid. It only involved my daughter and I being able to spend time with each other without the distractions or time consumption of daily “structure”.
We moved almost 7 years ago and when we did, Hannah and I stopped counting cars. Our house sits among the rest of the land locked neutral colored houses with their vinyl clapboard siding and macadam driveways in our ‘No Outlet’ development. We tried it, but the game lost its thrill after the third time we counted the neighbor’s Nissan. However, had we not moved, I’m not sure how long I would have had with Hannah counting the cars. Being a kid, her interests and motivations changed like the phases of the moon. I’m sure our time counting would have waned eventually.
Of course, as a parent who is so keenly attuned to the memories made with my kids, there is a piece of me that longs to sit back down on the porch with my daughters. The vividness of those times counting cars can be seen more clearly in my mind than some of our summer vacations we have taken. I can hear myself asking my daughter what number came after 6 and I can hear Hannah’s voice asking if the last car had been a Ford or a Volkswagen. I can remember her sitting next to me completely consumed in the moment and with the anticipation for the next car. I can remember being more aware of her sitting flush against my leg as I was of the cars. I can remember how it felt when it was just her and I sitting there.
I understand the point of entertaining our children can be for something specific like preparing their brains for the rigors of law school or wherever else you have pre-destined them to continue on with their education or something as simple as buying time until they are ready for a nap. We entertain them with all sorts of activities, plans, and events in order to strengthen their minds, forge bonds, and create memories that we hope will last a lifetime but sometimes it doesn’t take structure or organization in order to do any of those things. Sometimes all it takes is for you and your kids’ willingness to improvise and step outside of the structure, on to the front porch, and wait for a few cars to count.