By Lakshmi Palecanda
It’s that time of the year again, the time that children love and parents dread: summer vacation. As a working parent, I find myself consumed with guilt for not being able to give my kids the same kind of vacations that I used to have as a child in India. No, I didn’t get to travel abroad, and no, I didn’t get to travel to fun tourist destinations in India, either. My sister and I went to the same place every year.
My maternal grandparents lived in a small town called Namakkal in Salem district, Tamil Nadu, where my grandfather was a retired doctor. It was hot as Hades in summer, suffered a water shortage and huge power cuts, and but for three ancient temples, had nothing to offer by way of entertainment. As a child, I used to hate going to what had to be the uncoolest place on earth. So, is my guilt just born out of nostalgia?
Last summer, I worked part-time, and my two daughters aged nine and five attended summer camp at a local preschool. On the days that I worked, I had to get them to the camp by 8:30 a.m. While waking them up used to be a chore during school, it became even more of a drag now. One morning, my nine-year-old mumbled, “But, mom, it is summer holidays!”
My heart nearly broke. The only restriction placed on me during my summer holidays in Namakkal used to be that I had to be up by 8 a.m. The routine was that we woke up, and after brushing our teeth, had a big glass of Bournvita. Then we would take our fresh clothes and leave the house to go to bathe in the bathroom that was located about thirty feet away at the back. After the bath came breakfast, after which ? there was essentially nothing to do. We loitered in the backyard that had a Tulsi plant sitting majestically on a raised platform, and where jasmine and parijatha vines grew; we ambled around the garden, which was quite big, and had neem, sapota, badam, pomegranate and banana trees. We found weird-looking bugs; we followed lines of ants as they traveled from food source to their anthill, stopping to chat by touching antennae with friends along their way. As the day progressed and the mercury in thermometers threatened to erupt out the top, we escaped to the shaded portico, where we tried half-heartedly to play with my grandparents’ pet dog, which was even more laid-back than my grandparents. The house was huge with high ceilings and spacious rooms, and as hot air rose lazily into the afternoon and even birds sheltered from the sun, there were endless games of Monopoly, cards and thaya kattai, a traditional Indian form of ludo or Parcheesi. In between these “activities”, we ate ? seasonal fruit like jackfruit, muskmelons, watermelons and mangoes, as well as wonderful snacks that my mother and grandmother fried up. The evenings were a lot of fun. All the kids in the neighborhood (we were about ten of us) would get together and play hide-and-seek, blind man’s buff, tag, and when our energies ran out, card games. That was the extent of our summer activity.
Last summer, as I rushed to get my kids up, fed and at camp before time, I couldn’t help feeling guilty. Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, those long lazy summers were wonderful, filled with time to dream, doze and just watch the grass grow, as it were. It was a time for just “being”.
Then, at the end of one golden summer day last August, I picked up my kids at camp. Dressed in swimsuits, with straggly swimming pool hair, they were full of stories of the great time they had had in the pool, the wonderful hike they had gone on during the morning and the art they had made in between. The next day, they were to hike up to a waterfall, they reminded me. I listened with open envy, something that was not just born of the fact that I had been cooped up in a musty science lab when they had been enjoying the weather. They were actually doing fun things. They had learnt to swim at camp, a skill that I lacked; Namakkal used to be very drought-prone, and we barely had enough water for household activities, let alone swimming. They learned about different art techniques, they visited museums, and played with friends. This year, they have a choice between science, art and outdoor camps. In these months, they will be learning real skills, those that will help them decide what they want to do with their lives.
Which is better, my kids’ summer activities or the summer “passivities” of my youth? I wonder. Studies say that children must be given the time and space to feel bored, in order to become creative. On the other hand, my kids have been hiking, swimming and taking field trips, learning skills and having experiences that might help them plan their future. So, who has it better?
I don’t think there will ever be any “correct” answer to this question. Some might even say that I am comparing apples and oranges, since the world has changed so much in the three decades since my childhood. Life is far more challenging now than it used to be, with standards going up, and more and more people competing for the same things. Anything that can give children an edge is worth it, they might say.
As far as I am concerned, however, I try to give them a taste of the lazy times I used to have, by keeping them home one day during most weeks throughout summer. And it seems to have made an impact. Once, I asked my daughters what they most looked forward to in summer. “We love it when we walk to the coffee shop, and then go and just hang out in the park,” they said. Ah, score one for summer “passivity”!
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