Roped In: How My Teenage Daughter—And An Old-School Jumprope—Taught Me You Can't Force Fun
Shocked that her teen and her friends don’t know how to jump rope, an integral part of her own 1970s upbringing, writer Diana Abu-Jaber wonders if the screen never far from her daughter’s hand has stolen her ability to play wild and free.
- Antonius Ferret
- Written By
- Diana Abu-Jaber
I acted more out of desperation than inspiration.
A couple of my daughter’s closest friends had come over, dropped on her bed, and turned to their phones. This had increasingly become their favorite group activity, as if returning to the parallel play of their babyhood. I’d been worrying that such devices encroach on childhood, substituting screen-stunned passivity for wild, natural play.
Before I could stop myself, I went to my daughter’s room and made a doorway speech about the beauty of the day and the brevity of childhood. The girls groaned but humored me and turned the phones off. Immediately, I saw before me three bored thirteen-year-olds, languid as waterlilies.
I went to the Very Deep Closet, jam-packed with games and sporting equipment, with no special aim, other than finding not-an-iPhone. Rooting around, I came across the jump rope, hidden behind roller skates and a hula hoop. A cotton rope with wooden handles, it might have transported there directly out of my childhood.
“Why don’t you try a skip-a-thon?” I suggested, leading them outside. “See who can go the longest?”
The girls sighed. My daughter, who’s athletic in a way that I never was, nodded grimly and took the rope. She swung it forward and tripped.
Tried again. Tripped again.
Adjusted the rope—one skip, tripped.
Sophia tried—same results. Then Ava—ditto.
They passed it around, skipping and stumbling, taking big, stomping jumps while whipping the rope around, exhausting themselves in about four skips a piece.
Gradually, understanding dawned: these girls didn’t know how to jump rope.
As a kid, my jump rope was a constant companion. I loved to skip along solo or hop into a group jump—a girl holding either end of the rope (or sometimes tying one end to a tree) while another girl and I skipped in the middle. My crew knew endless rhymes about teddy bears, our mothers hanging up clothes, spelling Mississippi, and Spanish dancers. Jump rope was as constant as marbles, bikes, or crazy eights.
But I was a child of the 1970s, with an electric typewriter and a single videogame called Pong. I knew things were different now. I guess I hadn’t realized things were quite this different.
I tried to describe my jumping method to the girls– a kind of continuous, low-level mini skip. But they struggled to get the rhythms down, each of them blasting the rope around while taking huge leaps. None of them managed more than six or seven skips in a row before collapsing, gasping, into a patio chair.
Eventually, I picked up the rope and discovered to my relief that I could still jump without breaking a hip. But once I stopped, sweatily flushed with triumph, waiting for applause, there was silence. The girls had all returned to their devices.
It seemed I’d waited too long to teach my daughter one of the simplest pleasures of childhood and now—well, it was too late.
Many of my favorite memories of growing up involve long Saturday afternoons running around in the fields of central New York with cousins and sisters. My daughter, an only-kid being raised in Fort Lauderdale, has no nearby cousins and precious little in the way of wild fields. My husband and I are sun and water people; a beach-life seemed like the best gift we could give a child. But I’d forgotten about meadows and streams and snow.
It’s natural to want to recreate at least the rosier aspects of your own childhood for your children. But how often are childhood experiences really passed down? My father, who was raised in a little village outside of Amman, Jordan, was chronically nostalgic for his youth. But he also described real hardship: hunger, frigid winters, as well as too little space, no privacy, and physical fights among his too-many brothers that often necessitated medical attention.
An immigrant, Dad clearly missed his Jordanian family. But I was grateful for my easier, more comfortable American kid-hood. I never worried about having enough to eat or losing power in the winter. And it is true that, as my father once commented, almost dreamily: you grow up too fast when you don’t have enough.
If there’s one thing I want for my child, it’s an unhurried childhood—by which I mostly mean, plenty of play, unstructured, unplanned, in whatever form it may take. Or maybe I should say, “took”; at thirteen, my daughter’s already on the cusp of a new adventure. By the time I was thirteen, I was losing interest in my jump rope; I’d begun to realize I wanted to write books and stories and to feel the current pulling me from a playful life toward a more introspective one.
A day or two after the Great Jumping Fail, I glanced out the back window and saw my daughter pick up the jump rope from the patio table where we’d left it. She tried another kind of skip I’d showed them, where you essentially run in place. I watched, inordinately pleased when she made it to ten in a row.
Over the ensuing weeks, I’ve noticed her returning to the rope, simply, I think, because it’s there—and because it’s a little difficult, unrequired, and satisfying to conquer. Play, I suppose, is not something that comes on command. It appears almost magically in its own unexpected shapes, arising from its own underground spring. It grows in boredom’s secret spaces. Given half a chance, it springs up, a young life’s expression.
Childhood takes its own forms, like wild gardens, each strange and lovely in its own way. And play, its flower, grows as it will, according to its generational soil, appropriate to its time. I’ve realized that my husband and I can create the space and time and even the boredom—the opportunity—for play. But what it looks like should be up to my daughter.
The jump rope has remained outside, but it’s not the daily activity for my daughter that it was for me. And that’s fine. She can smash a tennis ball. She is a great natural swimmer. I’ve watched her stand up on a surfboard and ride; I’ve seen her turn cartwheels and flips that I could only ever have dreamed of. And she can pick out and sing two songs on a ukulele, which is two more than I can.
My daughter is very much living her own childhood, singular and rare, and it belongs to her. We lucky adults, each of us, we get to watch and learn, and sometimes, if we allow ourselves, we even get to play.
Raised between Syracuse, NY and Amman Jordan, Diana Abu-Jaber often writes about cultural identity.
Her latest work, Fencing With the King, a novel of Middle Eastern intrigue and adventure, was featured by Apple books, Goodreads.com, and The Millions as one of this spring’s most-anticipated novels.
Diana teaches at Portland State University and lives with her family in Portland and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @dabujaber, and even on Tiktok at @dianaabujaber.