Downtime v. Structure this Summer… by Tamar Chansky
While kids are counting down the days until school is out, many parents are secretly dreading the final bell. You might love the thought of not having to wake up at the crack of dawn to get the kids off to school while at the same time anticipating being on the losing side of an endless game of “keep away” from electronics.
Fear not. New idea to the rescue!
Your kids may be ready to jump into a great parental expectation-free summer — but you can turn the tables with a slightly different idea: put them to work. The idea may be radical to your child, but whether it’s pitching in around the house, or reviewing math facts, they can help out and still have a fun summer.
Don’t want to be the bearer of bad news? You’re not. In a watered down version of what David Sedaris’ parents might say: You didn’t invent this. It’s called life. And it’s actually good for them.
And it’s best to start this lesson right off the bat.
Work, even work that we don’t love, is part of life. Managing the frustration, the boredom, the agony of those 15 minutes sweeping the front porch, working on a math packet, or walking the dog is character-building. And the earlier we start building that character, the more natural these habits become.
As much as we all crave free time, inertia and boredom will ensue without structure. Enlisting your kids in a daily work assignment followed by free time gives them the structure to have a satisfying summer.
We’re not talking a 40 hour a week job, we’re talking about 2 or 3 hours of accountability after which they’ll have their fun time. This could consist of a unit of time each day in the following categories: common good — helping out with simple chores or babysitting; activity/exercise —indoor or outdoor; and education — summer reading, math packets or SAT prep.
It’s all in the delivery
What could make or break the success of this plan is the delivery. Think collaboration and conversation. The opener: “We really want this to be a great summer for everyone, we want you to have fun and we want you to stay healthy, and we don’t want to fight. How about you?”
Kids are more likely to follow through on a plan if they have a hand in the planning, so ask your child for ideas about how to do this. Listen and reinforce any positive efforts. Have them write down ideas for each of the three categories above on separate cards. Then each morning your child can take the three cards and decide when they will do each of their units. Or, streamline it and have your child create a daily pattern for the summer.
Here are some nitty gritty details to get you started.
‘Common good’ chores
Rather than assign tasks, ask your child to think of tasks they can do that are useful to the family. Even elementary age children can chime in about what chores they could see doing. Be creative and go beyond the classics of taking out the trash or emptying the dishwasher. Maybe your child could water plants, organize drawers or rip up mail for recycling?
Let them take pride in having a “department” that is theirs to supervise, so instead of policing what kids do with their shoes for example, putting your child in charge of keeping the entryway neat. The rule of thumb should be 5 to 10 minutes for children under 7, 15 to 25 minutes for children 8 to 10 and 25 to 45 minutes for children over 10.
Be flexible, many children are certainly capable of more, but the point is to get into the habit of doing this work every day, or at least several times a week, so it’s not about seeing how much they can get done, but rather, how much they can get done without complaining too much.
Initiate a daily kids-only or a family-fun activity —an early morning or after-dinner walk, walking the dog, a family bike ride, hula hooping or kicking the ball around at the park. It may be awkward at first if you’re not used to this, but you’ll find your rhythm. Getting friends involved will help create momentum and decrease nagging. Experts recommend two hours of activity a day — strive for one to start.
Exercising the brain is important too. Research has proven that all kids are at risk of the “summer slide,” or losing their essential academic skills without practice; and that kids score lower on achievement tests at the end of the summer than at the beginning. Make this a family event whenever possible. Rather than sending your child to his or her room like a punishment to read or work on their summer math packets, create family study hall or reading time.
This could be after dinner and before (or instead of) any television watching or screen time. Let your child choose the books, and share the reading of a book, or read side-by-side. You are modeling the value of reading and learning by your own participation. Or join in the larger community — many libraries build interest and excitement by inviting children to keep track of their reading as part of organized programs.
When I tell parents that experts, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend limiting screen time to two hours a day for children 3 to 18 (and none for children younger than 3), they worry about how they can fill all those hours.
Experts recommend eating five vegetables a day. I eat just three, and I am a health-nut! So having a flexible guideline is better than no guideline at all. You could decide to reward your child with an extra hour of screen time for cooperating with all the other expectations of the condensed work day without fuss.
Need some ideas for non-technology activities? Here are some great books that you can find online or at the library.
“The Daring Book for Girls”
“The Dangerous Book for Boys”
“Unplugged Play” (a favorite of mine)
Summer with its greater leisure offers opportunities for learning that may be harder to squeeze in during the busy school year. Offering your child a task that isn’t instantly entertaining challenges them to find the fun, to sustain the effort and to be patient. This is what they’ll need throughout their lives, and you are taking this opportunity to reinforce this now.
Kids entrusted with responsibilities are earning your trust and being viewed as important contributing members of their primary community: family. This sets them up for seeing themselves in this light as they venture out into bigger versions of communities — school, jobs, towns, the world at large. This is how they learn that they count. This is where an authentic sense of self-esteem, self-worth and self-efficacy come from.
OK, lecture over. Well, almost.
If/when you institute this new structure with your kids, challenge yourself to get on board. It takes three weeks to establish a new habit, so be patient and persistent. Your child will be surprised and will learn from your example.