catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 2 :: 2008.01.25 — 2008.02.08


The cousin village, the play date, and the commune

Living in the Cousin Village

When I was growing up in Western Michigan, we spent summers in a cottage on Lake Michigan.  My uncle had bought several miles of lake frontage back in the 50s, when there weren’t even any roads to that area, and later my parents bought a lot and my dad built a place for us to stay.  One cottage to the north was my Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary Ellen’s cottage.  One cottage to the south was my bachelor Uncle Dirk’s cottage.  Just to the south of that was my Aunt Agatha and Uncle Jack’s place.  Two doors down from them was my Aunt Joyce and Uncle Joe’s cottage.  So as kids, we had about half a mile of beach, road, and woods to roam in.

I would wake up on a typical day, put my bathing suit on under my jeans, eat breakfast with my two brothers, say goodbye to my parents, and off I would go.  I’d meet my cousins somewhere, all six or eight of them, and we would enjoy a morning of unsupervised adventure—building tree forts in the woods, building cities on the beach, damming up the creek, helping an uncle haul wood or split logs, or swimming and sunning the day away.  We would eat lunch at whatever cottage we were nearest to when we felt hungry.  We didn’t have to be back to the cottage until we heard the dinner bell.  Pretty idyllic, huh?  Days of play without parent supervision—every kid’s dream.

Well, it wasn’t perfect.  We had our disagreements among the cousins, and our share of close calls with danger.  But now that I have reached adulthood, what has been most interesting about this experience is talking with my aunts and uncles and finding out that, though we thought we were unsupervised, that wasn’t exactly so. 

It turns out that there was not a single stretch of beach that wasn’t visible from most of the cottages.  And when we thought we were all alone in the woods, there were frequent surreptitious visits by a rotation of aunts and uncles checking up on us.

Yet we had the wonderfully blissful illusion of unsupervised and unstructured play.  When we got ourselves into trouble, we knew the fear and responsibility of getting out again. All in all, it was a pretty good setting for childhood.

The only problem was that I was playing with my cousins.  Don’t get me wrong, they were great playmates.  But we all shared the same ethnicity and our parents shared, for the most part, the same political and religious views, the same economic status, and the same values.  It was idyllic in the sense of being almost heavenly, but also in the sense of not being real.  We felt like we were free, partly because (though we didn’t know it) we were safe.


The World of the Play Date

My wife and I have two children.  Though we live in a wonderful neighborhood with neighbors from all walks of life, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds, this is no longer the baby boom.  There is not another kid roughly my children’s age anywhere on our street.  So my children find their play communities through play dates and activities.

If you ask my eldest daughter who her friends are, she’ll mention Hilary and Taylor from school, Julia and Imani from violin group lessons, and Rebecca from the summer enrichment program.  My youngest daughter will tell you about Zoe and Greta from church, Jory from day care, and Sasha from swimming lessons.  Each of these friends live within a community that my daughters belong to as well, but these are temporary communities that they plug into when they are present.  They are communities of convenience.

Yes, my daughters feel safe when they are in these settings, but in order to achieve this safety, we have to drive somewhere.  The fact that so many of these communities are centered around an activity is perhaps reflective of the fact that if we are going to drive somewhere, we feel like there ought to be some activity or destination.  So my daughters are learning things as they make their friends and that, my wife and I feel, is a good thing.

But my daughters don’t run out the door in the morning and determine for themselves where they are going to go.  And as I think about it, I am not sure that there will ever come a time when they do get to make those determinations.  In order for them to stay connected to their friends, they will have to take lessons and go places and have destinations.  In middle school and high school, the programming will increase.  College and grad school will be a whirl of commitments, and then probably jobs and families and so on. 

I do not subscribe to the notion that each child deserves a carefree childhood as a right—in fact, I cannot imagine that a carefree childhood is even possible.  But I do like the notion of giving a child a safe place to be a child—an unprogrammed, uncommitted child.  And that brings us to…


Raising Children in a Commune 

So how can we provide for our children a diverse set of playmates, a sense of freedom and responsibility, and an extended time of apparently unsupervised play in a society where kids are further apart and fear is everywhere?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. 

There are a few steps we have taken, but I can’t say they have been wholly successful.  As I have written about in catapult before, we live in a house with my wife’s sister and brother-in-law and their three kids.  As teachers, my wife and I can’t afford to raise a large family, nor do we think that is a good idea in an increasingly overpopulated planet, but this way our children are part of a household with five kids.  There are more playmates and more older siblings to help supervise. 

We try to have an open door and a ready table and keep an open invitation with most people we know.  I hope that exposes my children to a variety of different types of people.

But the bottom line is that fear and suburban sprawl have made our society different from that of my childhood.  I can still envision some sort of larger neighborhood community.  Maybe there is a way to achieve such a thing, but it would involve people valuing community ahead of house size, and being willing to sacrifice a stall or two of garage space in order to live in a place with smaller houses, closer neighbors, and a greater range of incomes. 

We have some room in our neighborhood.  We’d be happy to welcome you when you move in.   

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