Kornel Makuszyński (1884-1953) was one of Poland’s beloved children’s authors during the interwar period. His comic series, Koziołek-Matołek [Matołek the Goat] was a much-beloved children’s classic that is still part of the canon of juvenile literature in that country.  

Born before Poland recovered its independence (just one hundred years ago), Makuszyński came into the world in what is now Ukraine, which was under Austrian rule when he was born and part of Poland from 1918-39. In 1925, he published Bezgrzeszne lata [Innocent Years], reminiscences of his childhood and youth.

I am especially interested in those “Innocent Years.”

By “innocent years,” Makuszyński means the years of growing up. Undoubtedly, because we are all sinners, there are faults even in those years but, for most people, they are also the time in their lives with happy memories and frivolities that might be allowed in children but not in adults. We speak of the “innocence of childhood.”  

I refer to the innocence of childhood—the happy memories and fun of growing up—as we come to the end of another school year. Soon, elementary and secondary schools will be letting out for the much awaited “summer vacation.”  

Perhaps it’s time we allowed our children some of those “innocent years.”

I say this because I am truly concerned that childhood is being progressively eroded. Case-in-point: a local magazine for parents in the Washington, D.C., area carries a feature article on how to avoid the “summer slump,” i.e., the decline in math and language skills ensuing from being two and a half months out of school. The journal’s prescription is to structure a kid’s summer into “Math Monday” and language arts Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with audio books for car trips and practicing cooking so that kids can double portions and work those pesky fractions.  

Now, I don’t deny that children need to remain mentally active, and that parents should kindle their child’s curiosity year round.  

But I do worry that some kids seem to be on a “preparing for Ivy League admissions” track from preschool. I’m not sure we are practicing math because we want our children to be smart or because we think this is a skill that will get him into Carnegie Mellon. I’m not sure we are encouraging reading for the fun of reading or to ramp up SAT vocabulary scores (although, to be honest, the bleakness of “young adult literature” and the crudity of children’s “literature’ like “Even Fairies Fart” hardly seems to be vocabulary-enhancing).  

Once upon a time, kids went to camp for reasons like: mom and dad wanted the kid to have a vacation (and didn’t mind having one themselves, either; getting kids out of inner cities into “fresh air” was a positive; and it was just good for kids to have some fun in a supervised setting where they could play and swim with peers, learn some independence, and build up childhood memories around a campfire.

Today, camps are specialized. We need to ramp up Junior’s Math scores or soccer prowess or cello virtuosity. The aspect of fun seems subordinate to the skills the “experience” is supposed to hone.  

Do we have time for a family vacation? Especially a family vacation to some relatives that we might not otherwise regularly see? As a kid, summer vacation meant going to see my paternal grandfather and aunts in far-away Connecticut, a good four hours and a world away. Ten days with a grandfather who had a chicken coop, and corn in a field, an aunt whose approach to getting you to swim was to drop you in the lake, and cousins for whom cutting a couple of acres of grass was nothing unusual was a world of difference and memory for this New Jersey city boy.  

As a parent with three kids, including a now 10-year old, I find the contemporary playground a strange place. There are as many parents hovering as kids on the playground. I hesitate to say “kids playing on the playground” because that would suggest some action in common: more often I find, kids “playing alone” (to adapt Robert Putnam’s title).  They may be there with other kids, but rarely are they as much playing with those kids as alongside those kids. I’ll admit that parents did not make “play date” appointments for my generation.

Perhaps we might consider a radical idea: summer as a time for recreation.

Recreation is, after all, that: re-creation. Refreshing and making ourselves anew. Recharging batteries. Restoring energy.

To the workaholic, Puritanical modern American who thinks of the 40-hour workweek as a minimal suggestion rather than a rational norm, that idea might sound outlandish. “We need to prepare young people for the modern world.”

There is a relevant legend about St. John. John, as you may remember, was the last of the Apostles, the “elder statesman” of first generation Christianity. It’s said that, once upon a time, a delegation of the wise and important showed up in Ephesus to plumb the wisdom of the Beloved Disciple, only to find him outside with disciples, playing. Scandalized (as such types usually are—can you hear the “tsk tsk”?), they clearly communicated their surprise. John answered by asking whether they knew anything about archery, an important skill in Antiquity. In response to their affirmative reply, he asked them to shoot an arrow. “Again!” “Again!” “Again!” “Again!”

They kept up the shooting, because one should indulge the eccentricities of important old men, until finally St. John asked: “What would happen if you just kept shooting arrows like that?” “The bow would snap from the tension,” replied the visitor. “Exactly,” said John. “And so would a man.”

So, while I hope that parents make their kids read a book and practice their multiplication tables, I also hope they leave a good piece of the summer, of those “innocent years,” to their kids. A certain national family restaurant-and-entertainment chain goes by the motto “where a kid can be a kid.” Perhaps we should make the motto of summer “when a kid can be a kid.”