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Is an action-packed summer really better?

For 14 years, the first signs of summer have greeted me while the sky was still shrouded in gray and belligerent cold. The auspicious signs would alight my inbox and postal mail with promises of sunshine and adventure. Brochures with bright smiles. Catalogs with color-coded indexes. Hyperlinks for easy registration. Enlarged quotation mark graphics around generous and enthusiastic testimonials. Summer was, indeed, coming, and these heralds let me know when to begin plotting my kids’ best summer ever. Again.

By the time my firstborn could walk, we were already vets on the mommy-and-me scene: music, tumbling, puppets, play dates at the park. Year after year, I honed my summer planning skills by spending the final throes of winter hunched over a calendar, a notepad and a spread of summer camp brochures. I scouted every activity my budget and logistics could afford, and plotted their summer adventures on a wall calendar.

Without a manual, parents start with what we know and build from there. I remember my mother signing me up for one thing or another as a kid. Tae kwon do. Piano. Gymnastics. Actually, I hated these three. The tae kwon do instructor was scary; piano required practice outside of the lessons; and gymnastics disagreed with my Amazonian stature. Still, I experienced a lot of things I did enjoy. Long before having kids of my own, I’d attended a program where the facilitator used the phrase “fuzzy dendrites” to explain how children gain new brain neurons whenever they encounter something new. More neurons meant more brain netting to snag and process information. I referenced the fuzzy dendrites regularly, once I had a baby. Mobiles above the crib. Feathers on their skin. My voice reading articles from Newsweek while nursing. Oatmeal in their pureed carrots. And, yes, “Baby Einstein” videos.

My two girls have had extremely fuzzy dendrites over the years. They’ve been signed up for kickball, cooking, dance, track, pompoms, day camp, poetry camp, horse camp, math basics, reading, roller skating, tennis, sewing, swimming, theater, architecture, chemistry and soccer. They hated soccer, though. They tease me now about making them suffer through the miserable heat, indifferent instructors and soccer-frenzied kids.

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“Well, now you know for a fact that you don’t like soccer,” I’d say.

“We already knew we didn’t like soccer,” they’d tease back.

“Listen,” I’d say, launching into my favorite, all-purpose Mama Mantra, “when you grow up and you’re living the life of your dreams–”

“We know, we know,” they’d laugh. “We’ll thank you.”

By the time I was a preteen, stumbling into new activities proved to be the single habit that helped me survive the horrific torture of middle school. Some of those activities – volleyball, singing, writing, student government – continued to serve me through high school and college, and are still enormous parts of my life. I wanted that for my girls, too. To give them little sampler chocolates of the world awaiting them until they came across that thing they’d want to sink themselves into. That thing that could inexplicably ignite a passion in them. Challenge them. Reward them. Soothe them. Affirm them. Source their own joy. At minimum, the girls wouldn’t spend the entire summer perched in front of a television and bemoaning their boredom.

I suppose, more than keeping them occupied and expanding their brain capacity, I wanted my daughters to have a context for what’s possible. Aside from the baseline parenting benchmarks of raising kids who are moral, just, informed and kind, I needed my daughters to believe in the idea of “possible.” Turning dish liquid into a volcano kind of possible. Making instruments with milk jugs and kidney beans kind of possible. Getting to a second activity on time if they pack a snack in advance kind of possible. Giggling with kids from different ZIP codes kind of possible. Stretching beyond their arm’s length to return a volley kind of possible. For tender bruises and chipped pottery and deflating cardboard towers to still count as winning kind of possible. By my parenting standards, I will have failed if my daughters head out into the world without the experience of navigating “possible.”

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And, as it turns out, heading out into the world is going to be a real thing. They’re 14 and 15, numbers that always felt theoretical when they were small. I was the last of my friends to have kids and would often chide them for lamenting their children’s inevitable individuality.

“Wasn’t this the plan?” I would ask, impatient with my friends’ moping or long faces when their then-teens would head off for dances and tournaments and double dates and college. “Isn’t this what you’ve all been working toward?”

I dab at the corners of my mouth these days, as I eat those mocking words. My own now-teens have started planning their own summers. In years past, I would spend hours poring over the offerings, comparing dates and fees, charting a schedule that settled somewhere between full and insane. Now, my daughters bring me forms to review and sign. We talk about the activities they’ve found for themselves. Volleyball. Basketball. Journalism. Fashion. Even weeks away on college campuses. We mark dates on the wall calendar together. This was definitely the plan: confident, resourceful young women capable of inserting themselves into the unknown. I just didn’t account for losing this ritual. I didn’t consider all the ways “independence” would show up.

The panic of their leaving one day hasn’t seized in my chest just yet, but it’s coming. As sure as tank tops and July fireworks, I know now that the panic is coming. For the first time in their lives, I’m not stitching together a summer of “possible.” They’re doing it for themselves. Summers will still be magnificent, but the innocence is gone.


Dasha Kelly is a writer, performer, social entrepreneur and carrot cake connoisseur. She is the author of the 2015 novel Almost Crimson.

Hear Dasha Kelly share her essay on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” here.

‘Learning to Fly’ appears in the June 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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