The Freedom of Imagination

I spent most of my childhood summers going to Orleans, Massachusetts. Typically, we would leave a day or two after school got out in June—our departure was often predicated on the number of snow days we had during the school year. As soon as we piled into our two-toned station wagon, I immediately marked the sacred territory along the back seat that my brother and sister were never allowed to enter. The radio was usually set to public radio or, if we were lucky enough to leave after dinner, the Red Sox game. Smartphones and tablets existed only in The Jetsons, so library books and workbooks were all we had, along with our imaginations, of course. Traffic was always horrible going over the Sagamore Bridge—and it always raised my dad’s ire. 

Despite the annual poison ivy scourge—I was a slow learner when it came to avoiding the shiny and pointed green leaves while looking for errant baseballs in the woods and bushes surrounding our house—these summers were bucolic. Our days were relatively unstructured—swimming lessons a couple of times a week, an occasional Little League game, and my mom’s dinner bell, which we knew would ring around six o'clock. Otherwise, we were expected to look out for each other and not do anything too naughty. We found the tidal pools, backyards, and our bikes entertaining enough—the cast of characters in the neighborhood kept our days interesting.

The nostalgics amongst us often hold up summers like these with misty-eyed reverence for simpler times. While I would not trade our days in Orleans, the friendships that came together in June and drifted apart in late August had their own drama. We often blame the intrusions of the latest social media for a more complicated childhood, and there is truth to these incursions, but we have more agency than we think and do our children a disservice if we mitigate our fears with too much structure and scheduling. I don’t think my parents were in the vanguard of parenting—Dr. Spock might have been their only resource—but they did understand the value of letting their kids figure out how to entertain themselves. I know that times have changed, and we can’t pretend that new distractions don’t exist. Still, we should never dismiss the power of the imagination to keep boredom at bay and to build the resilience and confidence that blossoms when we realize no one can take it away.