We have, in our living room, a side window that overlooks most of our backyard. Next to the window is a couch. I can, for the most, part, sit in this couch and watch my daughter and her friends playing outside without them realizing I’m sitting there.
It occurred to me during one of these sessions recently – me there with a nice cup of steaming coffee, dog at my feet, half a dozen kids screaming their lungs out in my backyard – that we’ve become that house.
You know the one I mean. The house where the neighbors are always peeking out their window to try to figure out what’s going on over there and whether to call the police or just close the drapes.
And you know what, I kind of like it.
When I was an early teen, and indeed into my twenties, my gang had a house like this where we hung out to play cards, watch TV and just be ourselves. That house, which still belongs to a woman whom I consider my alternate mother, was a safe place for us; safe in the sense that there were no expectations. We could be our dumb, loud, obnoxious selves, as teenage boys tend to be.
And through all that, as exhausting as I’m sure we were to her, she’d STILL make us grilled cheese sandwiches and her fridge was always full of Pepsi.
If we had girl problems or family issues, she’d listen. School or job worries, we tended to bring it to her.
While I’m sitting there on the couch, one of the boys in my daughter’s group comes tearing into the house, tracking dirt, out of breath.
“Jeez, buddy,” I say, “what’s up?”
“Can I have some screen time?”
“I’m bored by what they’re all doing?”
I glance out the window. The rest of the crew appears to be doing some kind of cheerleading. Gymnastics maybe? There’s a lot of running and jumping going on.
“Sit over there.” I nod to the other couch. “No YouTube.”
I feel like this is an equitable compromise. He grabs a Nintendo Switch and plops himself down, and I feel proud of my ability to hang out with my daughter’s friends, just as I did with my other mom all those years ago.
And am, of course, about to learn an utterly predictable lesson.
After perhaps ten minutes, the whole rest of the crew comes piling in. Side note – five, 8 to 10-year-olds have the concerted ability to sound like 50 wild elephants. Apparently, at some point, the gang realizes they were missing a lost sheep and came looking for him.
“Hey,” my daughter says, leading the charge, “how come he gets screen time?”
“He asked,” I say.
“Can we have screen time!” They all pretty much yell this at the same time.
I’m at a crossroads. I’d prefer for them to be outside. It is likely better for their mental and physical health to be outside. At the same time, I want them to feel comfortable and at ease inside the house. I could suggest some activity other than screens, a board game perhaps or crafts. But there’s six of them.
I take the easy route. “Sure,” I say. “Is anybody hungry?”
They are all hungry. Pretty much, they are all always hungry.
The kids settle in with a variety of screens, all flopping down this way or that around the living room and I go make some snacks. They are with us and they are on their own; contained and free at once.
My daughter runs into the kitchen. “Daddy, can we have some sugar?”
“Don’t push it,” I say and hand her a plate of fruit and vegetables. She scowls but brings the snacks back to the gang and they devour it like they haven’t eaten in weeks.
I’m not an expert at this. I don’t quite have the same patience as my other mother of all those years ago, and I certainly can’t make a grilled cheese like she could. Is letting them all play Mario Cart all afternoon the best solution? Well, I guess not. But it’s not the worst either.
And I know where they all are. So today, I’ll take that as a win.