Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fred Flintstone Expectations in a Flextime World

Yesterday, in the car:

The Girl: Daddy, when you were my age, did you play any organized sports?

Me: No.

(long pause)

TG: Really?  

Families in our area are so busy chauffeuring kids to this event or that one that it’s hard to believe that there was once a time when that wasn’t true.  

Fall baseball for The Boy ended at the end of October, so we had a brief break that ended last week with the start of basketball.  He also has music lessons, jazz band, and Lego League.  TG has gymnastics, music lessons, “band jam,” and Lego League.  (Band Jam is a weekly group rehearsal with other kids at the place where she takes music lessons.  She’s the band’s keyboardist.)  Lego League is in the home stretch, leading up to some all-day meets in December at which teams compete at putting robots through obstacle courses.  Band Jam leads up to a concert in December, too.  Baseball peaks in May and October; basketball peaks in February.  

Every single one of those activities brings obligations to drive.  Many of them involve two round trips, because the events themselves are too long to make it reasonable to stick around.  That changes when basketball moves from practices to games, but we aren’t there yet.  At least basketball games are indoors, and therefore climate controlled; that last Fall baseball game was brutally cold.  

I’m just old enough to remember when parents could tell kids to “go play” and be done with it.  (For that matter, I remember afternoon newspapers, and parents watching the six o’clock news after work.  It was a different time.)  it doesn’t work like that anymore.  And an individual family can’t opt out, since if others don’t, there’s nobody for the kids to play with.

I consider myself lucky in that I get home at a reasonable hour most days.  (The trick is going in absurdly early.) But practices usually start at five, which means getting the kids in the car before that.  If TW worked the same hours I do, we couldn’t do it.  Even now, on certain nights of the week, staying late requires a multi-stage planning process.  

As the kids get older, their activities become more consuming.  Teams start to travel from town to town, adding time.  (For TB’s Fall baseball, we had games in towns 45 minutes away.  We had to arrive an hour early for practice, followed by a two-hour game and a return drive.  With afternoon games, that pretty much shoots the day.)  When games fall on varying nights of the week, they cause a domino effect with other obligations.  The game bumps the music lesson, which bumps the haircut, which has to be rescheduled for...let’s see...

Despite all of the obvious workforce changes of the last few decades, parents are still assumed and expected to be available on consistent evenings and weekends, in the windows of time built around traditional full-time work.  The activities are built on the assumption that we all clock out at the same time, like Fred Flintstone.  If parents have varying hours, heaven help them.  If they have “afternoon” shifts, well, good luck.  (Some get help from grandparents and extended family, but that’s only practical if they’re local.)  Even with relatively traditional hours, I can’t imagine how single parents negotiate this stuff.  It feels -- and to some degree, works -- like a screening mechanism.  The parents who can’t negotiate the logistics have to see their kids left out, or have to cobble together precarious arrangements.  The ones who can are just exhausted.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  If the public schools had the capacity, they could absorb some of this into the after-school period.  Suddenly, activities would make transportation easier, not harder.  But by privatizing nearly everything, we’ve forced parents into either becoming amateur chauffeurs or keeping their kids out of anything enriching.  Any individual activity can be rationalized, but the accumulation has become dysfunctional.  The economies of scale -- whether in terms of money, time, or effort -- that could come from coordination are lost when it’s every family for itself.  

The world in which it was normal to tell kids to “go play” is so thoroughly lost that The Girl simply couldn’t fathom that it had ever existed.  But it did; I remember it.  The workplace has left Fred Flintstone’s hours behind, but parents are expected more than ever to conform to them.  This is what happens when we abandon the public sphere.  I don’t miss the world of the Flintstones, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some public options again.