Allow me to reminisce on my 1970s childhood. For sure, I watched television, probably too much. But I also remember exercising, a lot. We played kickball in the street, tag, hide-and-seek, capture the flag, pig. We explored woods and hunted crayfish under rocks in the creek. We chased each other in the cornfield. No dinner to steal, only cow corn for the dairy down the hill. We tried to play tennis, with wooden rackets and balls that barely bounced. In one claustrophobia-inducing memory, three friends and I crawled hundreds of yards through a pitch-black 24-inch drainage pipe to investigate the inside of a street sewer. In the winter we built snow forts or went sledding, climbing back up the hill hour after hour. All of this play happened in addition to nightly swim practice, plus soccer in the fall, softball in the spring.
Months ago I took Martin to a play date at his friend Jonathan’s house. Jonathan, who has special needs, is the oldest of four rambunctious brothers. On the day I brought Martin to play with Jonathan, his brothers Brian and Michael each had a friend over, too. (The youngest brother, a toddler, made adorable trouble getting in everyone’s way.) Brian and his buddy grabbed a soccer ball and dribbled around the yard, sometimes passing to each other and sometimes stealing from each other. Michael and his buddy found various wheeled toys (skateboards, toddler buggies) and raced along the driveway, then joined the soccer. Meanwhile, Martin showed little interest in the games that Jonathan (scaffolded by his mom) proposed, like a modified ring-toss set. He and Jonathan ended up wandering from activity to activity, usually alone. Martin also whined.
After an hour, Brian and Michael and their respective friends, sweaty, went rooting around the kitchen for snacks and drinks.
I want that for Martin, I thought. I want to see him flushed and thirsty and happy. I want to see a kid who’s played himself to exhaustion.
I rarely get to see Martin that way. Exceptions are when he spends time in the ocean, or when we’re skiing and he comes off the slopes red-faced and tired. Those aren’t team or cooperative activities, though. His beloved taekwondo, which involves other kids and benefits him in terms of attention, isn’t really physically vigorous enough to exhaust him. And as to the kind of unsupervised exercise-play I enjoyed as a kid:
- Times have changed. We live (mostly) in a New York City suburb. Letting my nine-year-old hang out in the street for kickball or spend his afternoons unsupervised in a creek bed would be good ways to get to know my local Office of Child and Family Services better.
- Martin’s ability to engage remains limited. The stuff I used to do—not all of it, as I could also be a loner—required participation: knowing the rules of a game and wanting to affiliate. Martin wavers between trying to play with others (and getting upset if he can’t) and prefering to be alone. Alone with an iPad. Alone with pens and paper. Alone. Even when a game is happening, he may not join, and he will never suggest or organize.
- We still have these damn problems with mitochondrial processing. We’ve come a million miles from the earliest days, when Martin’s three awake states were running, lethargy, and disconnected drifting. Imagine a toddler with no energy to pick himself up from the floor. But Martin still tires more easily than other kids, and lacks coordination. Physical activity may never be his thing. (Paradoxically, one of the best treatments for mito dysfunction, I believe, exercise.)
My eyes are always open for new forms of exercise Martin will actually do, and team or cooperative activity is bonus. I have a new idea, which I hope to put into play when we return to the States this fall: crew. I think rowing would be a good fit for Martin. Rhythm, team participation, and no complicated routines or strategies to master. I mentioned the idea to Jonathan’s mother, and asked whether she thought Jonathan might like to try rowing along with Martin. She responded with an enthusiastic yes. I am now searching for a rowing program or coach who will work with nine-year-old boys. (This is turning out to be not so easy.)
Meanwhile, I’m talking with Martin about the sport and showing him videos of the Montclair High School boys’ crew team. In a coincidence, Montclair’s undefeated Varsity 8, the current national champions, include the son of my oldest brother’s college roommate, and also the son of a congregant from my former parish in Manhattan. I’m wrangling these connections to bolster Martin’s interest. I think it may be working: Martin has just announced that he intends to become a national champion rower one day.