Junkyard Wars; Giving up the Battle of Having A Nice Backyard

If you listen carefully, you can hear the iconic sounds of the theme music to Sanford and Son, a hit T.V. series in the 70’s about junk dealer, Fred Sanford. The music starts when you pull into our driveway and gets considerably louder the closer you get. Finally,  it hits you full in the face; the set of the show is still alive, and it’s in my yard.

There are no junk cars, but that’s only because my kids have no way of finding, buying or transporting them.  Instead, there are mismatched pieces of lumber, scrap wood from projects long gone, broken toys, random parts of games that once had actual rules. Things that people usually throw away.

High in the trees is a magnificent tree house, built as a gift for the kids from their grandparents. One side connects to monkey bars, the other connects to a zip line, and underneath is a shanty town built from extra siding, old lawn furniture and logs. Shanty town is where every child who comes over immediately wants to play. I’m not really sure what it looks like on the inside because I’m too afraid to go in.

Next to our shed is a hole. This hole is approximately one foot deep and two feet wide. It was dug one day by five children, ranging from ages 4-11, while I watched, curious, out the kitchen window.  Why are we digging the hole? To see if you really can dig to the other side of the world? To find gold? To look for a water source? To bury something later?

The purpose of the hole was to find rocks, which ironically are on top of the dirt everywhere. The children were courteous enough to stake out and rope off the hole when they were finished so that no one accidentally fell in, although I’m not sure where they found the 5 inch stakes, since we don’t own a tent.

This whole process took about four hours, two Popsicle breaks and absolutely no intervention from me, other than to tell them that they weren’t allowed to use an ax.

I live in a respectable suburban neighborhood, in a lovely part of the South where people care very much what their home and yards look like. If we had a Home Owner’s Association, we would have been fined for at least twenty different violations at this point, from leaving yard equipment out on the front “lawn” (that’s what we call the weeds that we mow), to non-matching paint on Shanty Town.

I do care what my yard says to the rest of our neighborhood, but the part of me that cares grows smaller and smaller all the time. We don’t have a lot of free time to do yard work, and we don’t have a lot of extra money to pay someone else to do it. Also, we hate it and we’re not very good at it. Theoretically, this probably means that we shouldn’t have such a big yard, but we do and we’re not going anywhere. Its not violating any health codes; we do keep the lawn mowed and throw mulch on the “flower” beds every couple of years. Its just not beautiful; its cluttered. The upside is that parts of our yard could possibly be considered art exhibits in some of the conceptual installation museums. This strand of reasoning is just our laziness.

The real reason we’ve let it go on for so long is more purposeful. We figured out that we are accidentally really good parents by letting our kids have this wreckage. I read an article in the NY times (published in 2011, but brought alive again via Facebook and the recent debate over free range parenting) about the decline of problem solving skills and creativity in children, and how playgrounds have actually contributed to this. We have made playgrounds so incredibly safe, pretty, clean and perfect, that there is no room for creativity and recklessness. Which, of course means they are no longer fun.

Stay with me here. Children, from a young age have a need to test their boundaries. They jump off of chairs and sofas, they bounce on beds, they literally hang from chandeliers if they can climb on top of the dining room table. They are born with a need to figure out what to do when their adrenaline is pumping; they need to problem solve a way to get off of the mantle piece, they need to know how far they can jump without getting hurt. At the top of the ladder to the monkey bars, they have to figure out how to get across or get down without kicking the kid on the ladder behind them.They also need to learn how to help each other. If the 4 year old is stuck in the tree house, the 8 year old needs to be allowed to figure out how to get her down without an adult intervening.

Children also have an inborn need to build and create, hence the popularity of Legos and Playdough. As they get older though, they become less interested because it’s no longer challenging. It gets boring. This article theorizes that kids who haven’t been allowed to work through this reckless boundary and creativity issue when they are young, do so with much more dangerous risk taking behavior when they get older. Which is why we let our kids use real tools, because they aren’t bored when they can saw and hammer.

My husband and I laughed hysterically while reading this article because at that moment, our kids had large rubber mallets in their hands and were crushing rocks on the driveway. We were debating about whether or not we should stop them. What was the point of the rock crushing? It was making a huge mess.After we read the article, the point became clear: it’s really fun to smash rocks. So we let them smash away.

All of this being said, we do make them clean up after themselves. I’m not so liberal that I’m not going to teach them about being responsible for tools and materials and even junk. We just don’t take down any creation that they’ve built or that they are currently working on until it’s played out it’s usefulness and it’s parts are needed for something else.

My good friend (mother of 3 of the hole diggers), and I, decided to give this parenting philosophy a swing this summer. We’re both home during the day, so it seemed natural that our kids, who are 4, 7, 8, 10, and 11 years old, would gravitate towards one another. In the beginning, we would text and check in and watch them while they played, but as the summer has worn on, they kids just show up and most of the time I don’t know how many of them are at my house and how many are at hers. The big kids help the 4 year old cross the street, but then they expect her to pull her own weight when it comes to hole digging and lean-to building. They’ve become their own little band of “merry men”, and they have taken care of each other without us even having to bribe them. They’ve come up with some crazy ideas, but no one has gotten any injuries that required more than an ice pack and a Bandaid.

It looks a little alarming to see a four year old with a 2 X 4 walking across the yard, but when you find out it’s because it’s her job to carry the wood to the secret fort, it all makes sense. 

They are so filthy dirty by sundown that we actually made them eat dinner outside last week. Even the dog walked away when he smelled them. It’s been a hose off outside, then shower inside kind of summer, and it’s been wonderful. I can hear their voices, excited about the freedom, and when I do look out the window, they’re all scheming something and working together to make my yard look even more like the county dump. The good news is, I’m seeing more and more dirty children around the neighborhood, in little gangs looking like the seven dwarves coming back from the mines, so maybe my yard isn’t the only one that’s been reduced to a dust bowl.

We will never be featured in Southern Living, unless they do an article as a cautionary tale on how not to let your lawn go. The hope is that our lowered aesthetic standards will encourage our kids to prioritize creativity, teamwork and problem solving over how pleasing the yard is to the people walking their dogs past our house. As a bonus, while my husband and I sit on the porch reading instead of spending every spare minute making sure the lawn is perfect, we figured out that the grass is actually greener when it’s mostly dirt.