I’m sitting on the bench of wives, girlfriends, cousins, grandmas. We are watching our men play softball. I’m sipping on mineral water but my cohorts are drinking any number of items dyed and or illegal at a public park. The kids are playing on some rocks nearby, running around crazy like.

This is not the ideal place for preschoolers/kindergarteners if you are of the mommy-and-me/baby einstein generation.  My kids are 6 and 4 and I’ve spent six years cultivating play dates, safety zones, and perfect friendships with other mommies and kids who will be going off to Ivy Leagues some day. Okay, maybe that’s extreme but it certainly feels like most parents I come in contact with at my kids’ school or other social groups would not approve of my family’s nights of redneck softball where the kids roam freely.

Study after study comes out exclaiming that today’s kid lacks imagination and problem solving skills because we’ve taken all the guess work out of everything. There are less trips to the emergency room because they don’t play outside. They are in ear shot and eye shot from us at all times--we do this so they don’t get kidnapped! And we have every right and understanding to be so darn diligent.

This is what I’m thinking of as I’m sitting in the bleachers of what I’ve dubbed "redneck softball."  I’m not being all that pejorative. This is my husband’s softball team. There is often a cooler full of cheap beer somewhere near third base; often a cloud of smoke near a bush at the corner of right field. Many former meth addicts are among the players. Their medical marijuana cards not withstanding, there is much that’s on the brink of legality.  The language too. I can paint a tapestry daily with the F-word thrown in here or there, but I try real hard not to swear around the kids. This doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with the softball team and their kids.  I hear the F-Word more at one of their softball practices than all year anywhere else.

But, believe it or not, the parents at redneck softball are teaching me more about parenting and perhaps what’s missing from today’s parenting than any book or parenting guru. They have become my role models.

I watch the softball parents silently. Our evenings together have all the markings of what we are supposed to be doing in American society--in particular that sort of Norman Rockwell sort of America: We are participating as families in an outing to the park. Dads are playing softball. Moms are cheering. Kids are swinging on monkey bars and chuting down slides.

But the dads are wearing cut offs. Sexual innuendos fly. Their girlfriends are here with their children. Their exes will come by and drop off the kids from the previous union. Everyone is swearing like sailors. It’s hot. There are pitbulls wandering aimlessly with names like "Evil" and "Scum." Dinners are of hotdogs and chips and Gatorade. Not a lot in the vegetable department. Not a lot of hand sanitizer. Fingers are sticky. Feet are caked with dirt.  Hair is stringy and matted. Grammar is atrocious. And low and behold. No one has issues. No one’s kid is in therapy. When the kids get hurt they still "walk it off." They are told to toughen up and take it and get right back out there.

The kids sometimes play on the far end of the park. There’s a bit of a buddy system but there’s no direct parental supervision unless I get nervous and decide to take them all on a walk. And you know what? They are fine. They come up with their own games, their own stuff.

There’s something very refreshing about my evenings of redneck softball.

Sure my kids have picked up a couple of choice words that I’ve had to curtail. Sure the bathtub water is practically black when we get home and I give them a bath. But instead of feeling like they are precious, my kids are learning to run with the pack.  I'm more grateful than I thought I‘d be for that.

Recently at the park my son was picked on by a nice middle class kid from a nice playgroup-going middle class family that we see socially. After getting shoved a few times by the kid from the good family, Diego walked away and onto the bench next to the chain smoking, beer sneaking players and cheering squad of redneck softball.  Diego was crying. My husband’s coach and the leader of the group came up to Diego.

“What’s the matter, son?”

“A kid picked on me.”

“One of my kids? I’ll kill ‘em.”

“No, that kid over there.”  The coach looked up and squinted in direction of the jungle gym. Trevor, the offending kid was being called to go home into his parents’ waiting SUV.

“Ah, Diego buddy, don’t worry about them none. We’re your friends. That’s all you need.” And with that the coach patted Diego’s hair and was off to yell at some "poor bastard" that wasn’t giving it his all on the field.

Since I still, for the most part, live in a world of hand sanitizer, paranoia, and proper grammar this is particularly refreshing. The most genuine community and caring I’ve found is the one most people in my peer group of organized playdates, private school, and regular check ups would abhor. But I think my kids are benefitting beyond belief at this opportunity to be a kid, to run with the pack, to live like we did back in the 70s. A little hands-off parenting might do them a world of good.