Ben Falcone, the actor, husband, and frequent collaborator of Melissa McCarthy is one funny dad. We know this much from reading his new book, Being a Dad Is Weird: Lessons in Fatherhood from My Family to Yours, packed with life lessons drawn from raising his two daughters, as well as growing up with a wacky, lovable dad in southern Illinois. In a chapter titled ‘Stop Feeling Guilty,’ Falcone dishes out some essential advice: Tell your kids to “go outside.” Here, he explains why it’s okay to let your kids roam the great outdoors unattended every once in a while.
THE BIGGEST REALITY OF being a parent in the modern world is that we are constantly riddled with guilt. We have been led to believe that every day for our kids has to be an absolute Mardi Gras as well as an enriching educational experience. They need to be stimulated, but not too stimulated; they need to be around other children, and see lots of different kinds of environments, while also having a wonderful sensory experience that they will take with them into the world as they become worthwhile adults. And, they need to have a plethora of activities (but not too much of any one thing), both physical and intellectual, and eat a well- balanced, organic, gluten-free diet. Every single day, this is what they need. Feel like a failure just reading this? Yeah, me too. We’re all failures.
All this pressure comes from a good place. It really does. We all just want the best for our kids, right? We want them to have it better than we did, to experience all the world has to offer. I sure do. And I feel guilty pretty much every single day that I am not doing enough for my girls, that I could show them the magic of the world if I only tried a little harder, if I was home more, if I was more creative, if I looked at my phone less, if I was less tired, if, if, if . . .
But here’s the thing. Our parents didn’t have to deal with this bullshit. They never felt guilty about whether or not they had taken us to see the latest Pixar movie or we had visited the new exhibit at the science museum. Maybe that’s because they were just busy trying to pay the bills. Or maybe that’s because there were no science museums back then. I don’t want to go into some deep analysis of the current trend of the hyperactive helicopter parent. But I do know this—when I was looking to be entertained as a kid, my dad had one stock response, and it never, ever changed. It was, “Go outside.”
These two words are the most awesomely powerful words in a parent’s lexicon. And they are in a way a cop-out, too, because they give you a time-out while you rest a minute. Because here’s the other thing about kids needing constant fun, enriching times—this means you have to be involved in providing that. So of course, “Go outside” gives you a breather. But in another, more important way, they are the best words that any kid can hear.
I was an active kid in a different time. All my friends and I would ride our bikes everywhere, and I would play with my friends and friends of friends all day. But some days, everyone would be on vacation or just not around, and Flynn would be with Steve Merritt or some other cool older kid, getting a much-needed break from his younger brother. And my mom would be at work. So I’d be alone with my dad. I hated being alone, because being alone meant being bored. My dad was a fun guy and would play games for a while. But there was only so much he would want to do before he’d want to start read- ing a book or noodling around on a play he was writing. So I would get bored. So very bored. And when I was bored and my dad was busy reading or doing something I couldn’t participate in, I would often whine, “Dad, I’m bored.” And my dad would always say the same thing: “Go outside.” I’d always beg him to come with me, because heaven forbid I go entertain myself. Dad would always appease me with “I’ll be right out,” which translated into “I’ll be out anywhere between fifteen and forty-five minutes from now” or “You’ve got a brain in your head. Find something fun to do. You don’t need me to do everything for you.” Not that I actually heard it that way. But I’d head outside for a while and climb a tree or look at the sky or play in the yard or eat dirt, or whatever the hell it was that I did. Count pine needles. Feel the sun on my beautiful face. After what felt like an eternity or a minute (depending on my mood), he’d shuffle out and we’d play catch or take a walk and feel the sun on our beautiful faces. Sometimes he wouldn’t come outside at all, and after an hour or however long it was that I’d been eating dirt, I would go back inside, somewhat annoyed, and say, “You never came out.” And he’d look up from the book he was reading and reply, quite casually, “Ah. That seems to be true.” He’d then close the book, stand up, and ask, “Want to shoot some hoops?” And we’d head outside and shoot hoops. He’d gotten some quiet time with his book, and I’d gone outside and pretended I was Han Solo, counted pine needles, or eaten dirt. I’d done the kind of imaginary play that is good for kids that I wouldn’t have done if I’d immediately been able to force my dad to use his imagination instead of using mine. Kids need to make up their own games and worlds; it’s how they learn how to be creative.
When my girls seem bored, I do often try and come up with a game that they’ll like. One involves me as a giant who throws pillows at them, and every single time the game works out that they save their village and defeat the giant. Another involves me running after them until they turn into statues to stay safe. They laugh a lot at that one, and I get less hurt than I do playing the giant game. I’m not as young or as flexible as I used to be, you know?
But lately when they get bored or keep pushing for me to do something to entertain them, I will just look at them and calmly say, “Go outside.” Somewhere along the line, I started to remember that the funnest games I used to play were the games I made up myself, or that my friends and I made up together. So I decided to try it with my kids, and it’s changed my life.
Seriously, this is an excellent trick. You should try it. It will save you a lot of trips to the playground, Lego store, fro- zen yogurt place, children’s museum, or petting zoo. Petting zoos are very gross places, so you are welcome in advance for this particular piece of advice. Listen, I try to do something really fun with my kids every day. We’ll find a neat place to take a hike, write stories together, or run around, or I’ll watch them ride their scooters in a particularly dangerous fashion. But once in a while I need a break to recharge and so do they. They need an hour to go outside and play in the dirt and make up games about fantastical worlds in which they are invariably in a management position. So their minds expand as they create and manage countless complex universes, and I get to quietly sip coffee for a few moments. So it’s really a win-win.
And after you’ve accomplished your tasks and had your alone time (coffee followed by a nap? So great), you can head outside too. See what your kids have come up with on their own. Take part in the game now that you’re ready. You’ll never be sorry you did.