As a teenager, I dreamed of having the house where all the kids wanted to hang out. But there was too much supervision and not enough junk food (see “It’s Grandma! Hide the Froot Loops”). It seems I finally have that house–thanks no doubt to the lack of supervision and abundance of junk food–only now that I’m the parent, I no longer want it.
When kids are little, you control who they play with and when. You’re the one doing the inviting, so you’re responsible for what goes on when their friends come over. If your kid smashes the friend over the head with a pogo stick or rams a Lincoln Log up his nose–or if the other kid draws on your walls or pees on the carpet–you need to deal with it. But as children get older, they pick their own friends and organize their own playdates. My 13-year-old son routinely comes home from school with various classmates in tow, and while I am glad he has pals and that they like coming over, I sometimes resent that kids I did not invite are dumping their backpacks in my front hall and helping themselves to my Oreos.
Actually, it’s not the cluttered hallway or the ravaged cookie jar that I mind; it’s the disruption, and the feeling that I’m somehow in charge by default. As someone who works at home and is generally around in the afternoons, I often wonder: am I automatically responsible for the group of friends my son shows up with after school? And what if they head out into the woods? Am I responsible for them then, just because their backpacks are piled in my hall?
This is not a theoretical question. Last week my son came home with three friends, and they clearly had a mission. After they dumped their stuff, they quickly changed out of their designer sneakers into an assortment of our waterproof jackets and Wellingtons (including mine, without asking). Then they loaded up a backpack with rope, an ax, a collection of knives, and a bag of Pepperidge Farm goldfish. “Where are you going?” I called as they headed out the back door. “Just to the woods, Mom,” came the reply.
Now, I understand the lure of the forest as much as anyone. As a child, I spent plenty of time in the woods, catching critters, collecting treasures, and building forts and a treehouse that my father always said was more nails than wood. But did they really need knives and an ax? Might they be planning a ritual sacrifice, or a re-enactment of “Lord of the Flies”? I was vaguely concerned, but mostly I was happy that the house was quiet again.
They came back, exhilarated, two hours later, wet and muddy from the New England spring. I had already fielded a call from one parent wondering if I had seen her son, and why wasn’t he answering the cell phone she couldn’t get him to put down when he was home? I soon found out why: he’d been busy filming a video of the boys chopping down a tree, maybe 8 inches in diameter. While I was relieved that they were living out a Paul Bunyan fantasy instead of practicing Wiccanism or torturing squirrels–something I am confident my animal-loving son would never do, but what about his friends?–it did leave a number of unanswered questions. First of all, why? To which there really is no answer, except that it involved woods and weaponry. Was the tree dead or alive? Dead, they said, but I think it’s tough to tell when there’s still snow on the ground. And whose property were they on? They claimed it was public land–which might make what they did illegal. That’s why I want to know: if their backpacks are clogging my hallway, am I the one going to jail?