WATCHING THE TIME GO BY

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On a bright weekday afternoon, six boys are playing under the endless Nevada sky. Bryan and Christopher Hendrickson are third graders, 9-year-old twins, and as on so many afternoons, their garage is headquarters.

The twins, their younger brother, Andrew, and three friends pull two enormous boxes from the garage-one each from a recently purchased washer and dryer-and set to work transforming them.

"We're making our spaceship," says Bryan. "With guns included."

Why does the spaceship need guns?

"For evil, don't you know?" says Bryan. He sprays machine gun sounds.

As the sun sets, an ever-larger clan of kids, now including the twins' older sister, Lindsay, invades the backyard. The boxes become forts, the group divides in two, and a furious round of capture-the-stuffed-tiger ensues.

Dad Gregg watches the pandemonium with satisfaction: "We want our house to be the neighborhood play house-so we know where our kids are."

Around 6 o'clock, mom Judy summons all the kids-now nearly a dozen-inside for dinner of pizza and juice. Later, the game resumes for another hour or so by moonlight before exhausting itself. Some children wander home. Others are picked up by their parents.

And so another perfectly ordinary, and perfectly extraordinary, afternoon and evening ends on this quiet cul-de-sac. This afternoon, not one of the Hendrickson children had an after-school soccer practice, a music lesson, or a tournament of any kind. Judy parked the family's enormous Chevrolet Suburban (license plate: KIDKAR) at 3:30 p.m., and didn't move it again.

In 1999, when anyone over 2 seems to need a Palm Pilot to track the day's appointments, Gregg and Judy, who are both 40, live an amazing life. They have rebelled against the over-programming of their kids, and rebelled, too, against the reduction of their own role to that of administrative assistants who keep the schedules and deliver the kids to their next events. They have reintroduced their children to childhood.

It all seems so simple. Yet what the Hendricksons have done-consciously, and with enormous effort-may be the cutting edge of a new era. And no one is more surprised at their success than Judy and Gregg. Until a year ago, they lived exactly the way many suburban parents live. "At one point," Judy recalls, "We figured out I was spending one week a month of waking hours in the car, just driving the kids from one place to another."

First to go was private school for the kids. The schools were good but expensive, and 30 minutes away, which meant Judy spent up to two hours a day just shuttling back and forth.

"We also had four children in different activities," says Judy of that time 14 months ago. Soccer, T-ball, basketball, hockey, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts. "And doctor appointments for four kids, grocery shopping...plus piano lessons. And speech therapy." The schedule created a family in a constant state of edginess. Judy's Daytimer was the bible, the Suburban was the command center.

To their surprise, the parents found the public schools nearby were very good-and driving the kids to and fro now takes 30 minutes a day, total.

That driving is part of the new world of 1990s kids: out of concern for safety, the Hendricksons won't let their children ride their bikes or walk to school, even though they now live quite close. None of the kids-Lindsay, 11, Brian and Chris, 9, or Andrew, 7-has ever stayed home alone or been to the movies without an adult.

After the school change, much of the rest of the downshift was accomplished through simple parental psychology. Lindsay dropped out of Girl Scouts, "and we didn't push her to go back," says Judy. "It was one less thing." Then, when Lindsay whined about having to practice the piano, "I said, 'That's it, you're done with it.' "

The boys did play soccer this fall, Judy says. "They bugged me for weeks and weeks and weeks." They also asked to play T-ball-which would have been three practices a week, plus a game on Saturday-but they never really pushed. No T-ball.

The persistence or absence of nagging-what Judy calls her kids "closing the deal"-is a sure sign of their real level of interest.

The Hendricksons have had certain advantages in their downshifting campaign. They have an intact, first marriage-everyone under one roof. They live in the Green Valley area of Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas where the streets inside the subdivisions are quiet. Neither parent travels for work. Judy, who gave up a marketing career eight years ago (she still subscribes to the Wall Street Journal), works at home, handling the business end of her husband's thriving dental practice. Gregg even gave up golf to spend more time with the kids on weekends. Everything is filtered through the new focus on de-scheduling.

Lindsay does have dance lessons. All three boys do Boy Scouts, on Sunday afternoons. Mostly, though, the kids come home from school, do their homework, and are free to play after that. Dinner, as a family, is almost always at 6.

It takes just a single, perfectly typical Friday to see the mix of worlds Bryan and Chris inhabit: the influence of the world their parents grew up in, the constant chirping of their own era.

Everyone in the Hendrickson household rises around 6 in the morning, even on weekends. Bryan-taller, with a shaggy, melon haircut and a devotion to schoolwork-can often find time to squeeze in a round of the hot video game Zelda before school.

Chris-quieter, with a stylish look and a natural athleticism-has lost interest in Zelda. But on this morning, when everyone is loaded in the car and ready to go, he is closeted in the bathroom; his Gameboy's beeps can be heard from behind the door.

"Turn that Gameboy off!" yells Mom. "It's just like their father," she says, "in the bathroom with a magazine."

Indeed, over the course of a couple days, most conflicts between Mom and kids come over video games, TV, and Gameboys-which all seem to have an irresistible urgency.

In fact, Chris and Bryan are relatively insulated from the modern media cascade-they read, they study each day, they play endless games of handball against the garage. Only Lindsay has a CD player, and none of the kids comes near to watching the national average of 90 minutes of TV on school days.

There is one way in which the family reflects an important trend noted in "American Children's Time": the Hendrickson kids spend a lot of playtime supervised by adults.

On this Friday afternoon, Judy does something no '70s or '80s mom would have done. She sets up a beach chair at the top of the driveway. So does her neighbor Colleen. Along with their own relaxed sociability-a shaker of Cosmopolitans, garlic-roasted red peppers, and smoked salmon-the pair watch over the whole afternoon of play.

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