By Christopher Byrne
The Back-to-School season is a huge cultural event. Retailers invest millions trying to get you to stock up on new supplies, new clothes and hundreds of other items. No surprise; it’s a big transition time for families as schedules are reconfigured and families switch into high gear.
But what about summer? As schools let out over the next month, aren’t family plans and schedules changing as well. And are you planning for it?
What happened to the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer?
Dream on. These are a mid-20th century memory, and that was a holdover from the agrarian culture of the 19th century when schools let out for the summer so kids could help on the farm. Today’s parents are lucky if they can get their kids to help with the weeding for half an hour.
For many families, summer is as packed as the school year but has new demands. Children’s schedules may change radically; adults’ don’t. With two parents working, scads of organized activities, educational or athletic programs, schedules are just as crammed, and parents are just as stressed. No wonder that perennial Staples commercial where parents are gleefully shopping for school supplies while “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” plays strikes such a chord.
I’ve been talking to a diverse collection of parents about their summer plans over the last few weeks, and, as you might imagine, their responses range from denial—“I just want to get through the school year.”—to over-planning. To be sure, the economy is having an impact on summer plans already, but here are some tips from parents who, on the surface at least, seem to have it together.
• Make choices. Your kids may be interested in doing a hundred different things, but time and budget are prohibitive. Encourage kids to choose the one or two different things they want to do. And don’t forget to factor that choice into everything else the family is going to do.
• Make plans. Kids still need to get to activities, and summer activities usually run on different schedules than the school day. This may take planning with other parents to share driving, arrangements at work to shift your schedule. As one parent said, “No one likes these kinds of surprises, least of all me.”
• Make time. Unstructured time is very important for kids during the summer. It should be, at least in part, a well-earned vacation. Remember that teens in particular are going to need more sleep. Fortunately, they can be a little more self-sufficient than preschoolers or grade school children.
• Make progress. Parents are concerned that the momentum of the school year not be lost as kids move into summer. Certainly the proliferation of special courses in the arts and sciences over the past years has helped, but an organized program isn’t required. For younger kids, workbooks or toys like those from LeapFrog that reinforce basic skills. For older kids, good old fashioned reading is important. Whether your school has a reading list or not, make time for this—and model it yourself. (Our series on Summer Reading begins in a couple of weeks.)
• Make rules. A summer playing Wii is not an option, say many parents. It falls to you to ensure that happens. Making time for reading, family time, and, yes, chores, is important. One mom said that one of the benefits of relaxed schedules in the summer means that the family can have more meals together. It’s something she insists on.
• Make fun. Chances are that you, like many of the parents I spoke with, have fond memories of playing with other kids during the summer away from structured activities. Most people can’t just turn their kids outdoors in a neighborhood like many of our parents did, but giving kids that sense of freedom can help them develop social skills, imagination, resourcefulness and confidence. Kids will naturally find fun; you don’t have to dream it up for them. What you may have to do is give them the environment where they can safely experience a little independence.
Many parents also say that they’re disappointed that their kids won’t have the same kind of summers they did. And that’s probably true. But they can have summers that are engaging, productive, fun and create positive memories for them. Chances are summers won’t be the same for their kids either.
So here’s the best advice we can give you right now: Think about what made summers magical for you. Then look at the realities of your life today. Factor in your children’s interests and enthusiasms and make a plan. Chances are you’ll find summer less stressful and more pleasurable overall.