My kids were supposed to be away at camp this week. For the past several years, they’ve gone to the same sleepover camp, and they look forward to it months in advance. Alas, with COVID-19 the plan changed and the camp did not open for the first time in 50 years. The same happened with soccer, ball hockey, swimming, art camp, and music camp, all of which my children had hoped to do this summer (and I was relying on to distract them while I got my own work done).
With formal plans erased from the calendar, we’ve had to adjust. Instead, the kids wake up every morning and do whatever they want, day after day. I have to work from home, and so does their dad, so it’s up to them to entertain themselves and each other, without the help of organized activities.
We parents, along with so many others, are also exhausted after months of lockdown, and the fabulous summer weather outside beckons like a free babysitter. To quote Heather Dixon’s lovely open letter to her kids on SavvyMom,
“This might be your only summer of unscheduled days. [The only summer] when you can drop your bike on the front lawn and run inside to find me already cutting up watermelon or handing you a popsicle to take outside. When you can get to know the neighbor kid. When you can ask a friend to play without me texting their parents first and finding a couple of hours several days from now when it fits into everyone’s schedule.”
The concept of a lazy, free summer is familiar to most parents these days, who likely spent their own childhood summers in a similar carefree fashion, but it’s unprecedented for the children of this generation. They’ve never had anything like it before, and there’s a chance they never will again, which is why parents and children alike should embrace this rare opportunity to have what some have called “a 1980s throwback summer.”
Kids these days have not been given a chance to thrive in an unstructured environment, but I have a feeling that both they and their parents are about to discover this year that it’s a wonderful thing. When kids are left to play freely, they become clever and creative with their games. They grow confident and resourceful, thanks to time spent doing things independently, and healthy from running around outside. They develop new hobbies and interests because they suddenly have a chance to do them, whether it’s observing insects, shooting hoops in the driveway, snorkelling in the lake, learning ollies on a skateboard, or reading comic books.
This summer of freedom is a chance for kids to be let off the hook for academic and physical performance. They’re allowed to waste time, and parents can show their kids that it’s OK not to be striving for excellence and productivity at every moment of the day. Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids and founder of Let Grow, wrote in a blog post, “Letting your kids waste some time shows them you believe in them even if they aren’t hitting every milestone and ‘achieving’ every second.”
As for my family’s old-fashioned and unscheduled summer, I’ve put a few basic ground rules in place to ensure it runs smoothly. After all, I still have to work, and I still need help with the housework.
1. Kids have to help with chores.
The day always starts with making beds, hanging out any wet laundry, emptying the dishwasher, watering plants, helping with dishes after mealtime, and more. Kids are expected to brush their teeth twice a day and apply sunscreen before heading outside. Dirty clothes are fine; in fact, I want them to get dirty because it’s a sign of a day well-lived.
2. Screen time is severely limited.
If allowed to do whatever they want, most kids would spend all day in front of their iPads or phones. That’s not OK with me, which is why my kids don’t even own those things, but I do let them watch Netflix occasionally on rainy days or at the end of a long day spent outside.
3. The kids must be free-range.
I have to let them go in order for them to have a good time. I cannot expect them to hang around the house and have a fulfilling summer. They must be allowed to roam, on foot or on bicycle, on predetermined routes and trails, to destinations that we’ve discussed in advance, with friends whose parents are comfortable with freedom, too. They don’t have to tell me exactly when they’ll be back or what they’re going to do, but can give me a rough idea of their route and goals. Then I have to let go and trust that the skills I’ve taught them will serve them well.
4. Food is accessible to all.
The most predictable interruption during the work day is, “I’m hungry!” So I’ve given my kids free run of the kitchen. They’re allowed to make whatever they want (even cook and bake because I’m in the house if there are any emergencies) and to snack freely, as long as they don’t hound me with requests for help. Snacks in our house are simple; there’s nothing fancy or prepackaged, mostly slices of bread with butter and jam, handfuls of nuts, and lots of fruit. I cut up melons in the morning and leave them in a bowl. We pick fruit at a nearby orchard and eat that. Sometimes I make cookies and put them in a jar, but mostly there’s no junk food.
5. Parents, aim for set work hours.
I think it’s important for any working-from-home parent to strive for defined hours because it creates a sense of structure and predictability for young kids, as well as anticipation. For example, I am at my computer no later than 6 each morning, which means that, if I work steadily, my work day is finished by the early afternoon. I ignore my children all morning, putting off complaints and requests and telling them to solve their own disputes, but I do so knowing that I’ll have several hours free in the afternoon to hang out with them. I am fortunate to have a great employer that allows for flex hours, but I think many others are getting on board with this, too, as it greatly improves quality of life.
6. It’s OK to be bored.
But I don’t want to hear about it. My kids aren’t allowed to complain about being bored or else they’re given more chores to do. It’s up to them to figure out how to entertain themselves. If they’re have trouble coming up with ideas, make a list of possible outdoor and indoor activities and stick it on the fridge for easy reference, but realize that it’s not a parent’s job to fill the hours with stimulating activities.
An empty summer is a gift. Treasure it and take advantage of it and squeeze every drop of adventure out of it. This summer could end up being your child’s best ever, your most relaxing, and your cheapest.
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