Old books, movies, and even memories are full of descriptions of children hanging around outside during summer. While some of this activity still occurs, no doubt, the more common conversations today are about how to keep children busy during the summer. The goal is often to add some educational benefit or talent to a child’s repertoire. The increase in the number of families with two working parents has also given rise to the need for children to have special care during the summer months while both parents earn a living.
The dilemma faced by parents-whether as a result of work schedules or many summer hours to fill-is how to “do summer” without creating undue stress on children, parents, and finances and, furthermore, how to avoid either harried schedules or dangerously under-supervised times. We worry now when our children say they are bored. Our life on the information superhighway has made most of us less tolerant of low stimulation. At the same time, the world seems a lot less safe and so just hanging out with no adult supervision seems a bad idea for children at almost any age.
Here are a few thoughts that may be of some help.
ONE: It’s okay to be bored. Learning how to entertain one’s self is a lifelong skill that all children should master. Don’t become a slave to keeping children entertained. Remember the joys of cards, board games, watching clouds, and playing with toys. Also remember that children must learn to play with each other if they are to learn social skills. They won’t learn good social skills playing with adults because most adults are not demanding enough.
TWO: It’s not okay to sit in front of TVs, computers, or video games for more than two hours per day. Reading skills decline and obesity increases as couch or chair time grows.
THREE: Arranging play dates, beach excursions, zoo and museum trips are great ways to be involved in organizing young children’s time. If a group of friends can rotate responsibilities for arranging and supervising such outings there are at least three advantages. First, parents get some needed adult time away from children. This often makes them better parents over the long haul. Second, children learn how to deal with other adults’ expectations. It’s very valuable for children to figure out that they may have to change behavior to meet other people’s standards. This is an important life lesson. Third, exerting energy into choosing children’s peer groups is a good investment. When your children are teens, you will be especially grateful if you know their friends and their friends’ parents.
FOUR:: All children should have chores or work in summers even when they don’t need the money. Assuming household chores (walk the dog, clean up toys, clean the pool, re-arrange the garage, sort through clothes for possible give-aways, etc.) lets children know that they can do things. Children need real tasks to learn that they are competent and resilient.
FIVE:Teens may have jobs outside the home. Learning to be on time, take direction from supervisors, establish good money management skills, and deal with new people are all very valuable lessons. Most of the time these skills are best taught by people who are not the parents! Friends who hire each others’ children as nannies, housekeepers, chefs, dog trainers, technology consultants, or construction workers should be allowed to hold the child to high standards of behavior. We all want our children to learn that hard work is rewarded and shoddy work is not.
SIX: Academic skills often decline during the summer because children don’t read or do math for three months. A family summer ritual should be family reading time and family discussions about current events, books, TV shows, trips, etc. Consider enlisting your child as part of the vacation planning effort. Work with Mapquest and Google Earth. Have children figure out the costs of hotel and transportation. Ask for itineraries and budgets. Let them gather on-line material about sites that are to be visited.
Children may or may not need a break from school-a question for another column-but they certainly don’t need a break from learning and from interaction with caring adults. Even 21st century summers can be special times for building memories of the good old summer days of fun.
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Professor Jane Close Conoley is Dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara.