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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

How-to Friday: Make your Children Happy

We’d caught each other at the doors of the school at dusk, dark falling early that January afternoon. We were catching up on the news of winter vacation, and Camille’s friend takes her new iPod Touch from her pocket. The two friends hover around the screen like swarming bees, and from the corner of my eye, as I talk with the mother, I watch the hallowed buzz until suddenly, there is the spectacle of the Christmas gift falling to the ground and the screen shattering into pieces. There can be no retrieving it, no neatly putting it back together. And the mother looks as if she’s run over a deer, killing the animal and denting her car beyond recognition. There isn’t blood in our scene, just bits, and she mutters that she thinks Visa will cover the loss and allow her to replace the broken one, and she’ stringing together sentences fast, making sense of the bits and the two hundred dollars she may as well have just ignited in a backyard bonfire if Visa doesn’t come through as she hopes.

I might be easily made to say, if you twisted my arm, that eight-year-olds have no business receiving an iPod Touch for Christmas, but that would make me the arbitrating voice of reason for every family on this planet. I’m not happy to play that role. You can give your child whatever you want to give him. You can happily spend the money you think you must, but I’m simply here to say it doesn’t have to be so expensive to make your child happy.

Several weeks ago, when the children had a four-day weekend, Camille proposed the utterly ingenious idea of hanging a swing from the tall oak tree in the back yard. She had done the proper calculations, designated the appropriate branch, and reasoned that it couldn’t cost a lot of money to hang a swing. (Camille knows the value of a dollar. Once, when her piano teacher had indicated that because she was almost finished with her theory book, she would have to buy another, Camille had eyed her suspiciously. “That costs money, you know.”)

We googled, “hang a tree swing” and came up with a This Old House episode on just that very subject. The video had proposed a project with saws and paint, and while I normally would NOT have let myself be talked so easily into a project by my eight-year-old, this particular day offered up its unexpected dose of parental generosity. “Yes, that’s a great idea.” Not, of course, that I would be the one working with the saw. We promptly emailed the video to Dad.

Who came home and - why sure, we could try that - on Sunday made his pilgrimage to Home Depot, returning home with a plastic melded disc for the seat of the swing and two different kinds of plastic rope. I asked him whether he intended to drill some hardware into the tree branch, warning him when he answered no that we would be endangering the tree.

“I’m NOT getting up there with a drill.”

And the project proceeds with the collective heads of Ryan and the three older children strategizing how to get the rope around the tree’s tall arm, which extends stiffly over the backyard. First, the rope is attached to a Nerf football. Both Ryan and Nathan throw, making unsuccessful attempts to loop the long rope around the limb. It is decided that something heavier is needed. They scrounge through the garage, and someone triumphantly carries out a baseball mitt. It would take only a few tries with the mitt, and the yellow rope would indeed loop and fall. There is applause, cheers. Ryan threads the disc onto the rope, knots it like only a Boy Scout can (or was he a boy scout?). The swing is operational.

It has hung like an invitation into the backyard. For the first week, the children were in the backyard immediately upon waking up in the morning. Our neighbors, I might imagine, have regretted the hanging of the swing ever since. Friends have been invited to play, “because you HAVE to swing on our new swing,” and they, too, have drunk in the fun of swinging in the widest arc ever known to man. I am asked to do my famous underdogs for them, and when I push twice, counting, “ONE . . TWO” and then, grabbing their waist, run under them as I hold and release with an extra push of my fingertips, they sail higher than the fence, squeal, and wave to the sky.

A swing. It was as easy as that.