Children’s Wild Fun: Do You Crave it or Avoid it?

I see dozens of expressions of raging joy like this one (my son Marco) every week, from my kids as well as from other kids.  If I don't, I feel like I'm missing something, and that I'm doing something wrong. How about you?

I discovered something very important today.

You see, I absolutely crave the sights and sounds of children having wild fun. You know – lots of screaming and laughing and running. Spontaneous. No authority, on the verge of getting out of control. Teetering on the edge between total joy and danger.

In fact, I’ve done a lot to insure that children around me, including my three boys, get to experience this regularly. Last year, I renovated my front and back yards to make them into a neighborhood hangout, and earlier this year I added a trampoline to the back yard. In addition, I go outside with my boys almost every day to play and get other kids playing with us.

All this has been working quite well. We regularly have kids over here having wild fun – at least a couple times a week. Knock on wood, no one’s gotten hurt yet. Thus far, it’s been unmitigated joy here.

What I’ve discovered is that most parents don’t have the same craving that I do. Sure, at some level, they like hearing and seeing kids having wild fun, but it’s not like a drug for them as it is for me. They can live without it.
In fact, many parents who come over to our house are quite ambivalent. Of course, they’re happy to see their kids so utterly joyful, but they can’t help thinking other thoughts that drag them down. I imagine that they’re thinking things like, “My kid might get hurt.” “Oh jeez, now she’s going to ask me for a back yard like this. I can’t afford it!” “I hope I can drag him out of here in the next 10 minutes without crying so we can make that birthday party.” “How am I ever going to get her to bed tonight when she’s so overstimulated?”

Intellectually, I understand inner chatter like this, but I don’t experience it. It simply doesn’t pop up into my head. I just feel total joy as kids have wild fun at my house.

This difference between me and other parents manifests itself in all sorts of ways. For instance, I found the kindergarten classes I visited at my neighborhood public school last year depressing because I never saw any kid animated and having wild fun. Other parents love the atmosphere there because kids are under control, focused on learning. Can five-year-olds have wild fun and learn at the same time? I totally think so. In fact, many childhood experts contend that they learn even better.

I also found an organized baseball game of seven year-olds that I attended last weekend depressing because I saw zero evidence of wild fun. 20 or 25 kids get together for an hour and a half outside to “play,” and not one of them screams-and-laughs? Other parents think seeing their kids hitting, pitching and fielding with uniforms on is totally cute. I see a bunch of kids far less happy than they would be if they were playing wildly, as they do in my yard. Isn’t fun the most important goal of youth sports? You’d never know this from the way kids look at these baseball and soccer games. It’s dreadful, in my opinion.

Furthermore, my concept of a good kid party is totally different from that of most other parents. I like to gather a bunch of kids together in a stimulating place (e.g. my yard) and let ’em go wild. No structure, no schedule. Usually, they want to play indefinitely, until their parents drag them away. Most of the other kid parties I’ve attended are at dedicated play centers like gyms or bouncy house centers or parks. Parents or paid workers say “do this,” then “do that.” Some wild fun might creep in at some point, but for the most part, it’s quite under control.

So, what’s different between me and most of the other parents I know? I have a deep belief in the power of pure happiness. Wild fun is the best manifestation of this in kids. Kids have wild fun when they play freely. Adults, or at least adults who act like “adults” by guiding play, end up inhibiting free play.

My belief means that I think that all sorts of good things happen when kids, or adults, for that matter, are totally happy. The kind of happiness I’m thinking of is more like “flow” than hedonistic pleasure. When people experience this kind of happiness, they are at their best in every way. They appreciate others and have the capacity to be very kind. They create great friendships. They also can be very focused mentally. They think deeply and clearly and creatively. Finally, well, people who have frequent bursts of intense happiness tend to be happy people in their everyday lives. That, my friends, is the holy grail of life, in my opinion.

It’s significant to note that I hold this belief in wild fun very deeply. Parents who don’t hold this belief deeply – perhaps those who merely read about it rather than live it their entire lives – are very likely to listen to those voices in their head that tell them other things are more important than wild fun. After all, wild fun is more dangerous than adult-administered faux-fun. It may conflict with getting homework done for tomorrow. It may antagonize institutional forces that depend on compliance.

In short, seeking a life of wild fun for your kids may mean that they get more bumps and bruises and don’t conform to what the world asks of them in the childhood years. That’s totally fine with me – I think bumps and bruises build character, and I want my kids to exceed the world’s expectations, not meet them – but this clearly isn’t a path for every parent to follow.

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