What happened to the good old days of unstructured play during summer vacation? You headed out to your friend’s house in the morning, checked in with your parents around lunch (maybe), and then were out until it was dark or dinner time. You had fun, it was raw, it had what little structure you imposed on it. There were the occasional camp excursion or camping trip or family vacation thrown into the mix, but from what I remembered, it was quite a bit different than it is now.
Playtime when I was growing up was much less controlled. Calling the “home-base” was via a land line. There were no cell phones, no pagers, no email and pretty much electronics were confined to a TV and VCR (OK, I’m not THAT old, yes we did have electricity). You watched whatever was on the few channels or what you taped on the clock-blinking VCR. I remember going to my friend’s house to watch taped episodes of SNL and Friday Night Videos. There was no on-demand cable or satellite, no incredible gaming consoles (we did have pong), no Netflix or even DVDs (we had to rewind the video tapes we rented and actually return them to the store). But somehow, we managed to survive and probably helped to create much of the “entertainment” that now governs our own kids’ lives.
Kids nowadays “expect” a lot more: structured schedules, pre-planned playdates, and exciting summertime activities. And this is making us parents miserable and crazed during the summer. We have become financial and scheduling experts without really wanting to. And do our kids really expect it? Or is it just what they (or their parents) see all of their peers doing?
It seems that kids now have to be herded off to summer camps or expensive amusement parks or sporting activities…and not just once, but all of the time. I think there are a lot of things to blame for this. For starters, it’s the economy. With unemployment high, many families are no longer single income, in fact, the parents may be working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. School times are great for scheduling and finance because it is predictable – for most of the day, your kids’ little minds and bodies are growing in a structured learning environment. This leaves parents a bit more flexibility in terms of the daily timing. Switching a schedule around is difficult at best – work commute times need to be rethought, pickup times coordinated. At least during school months, there is consistency of those times (with the odd after-school sport or activity thrown in). But enter the summer months and suddenly your family schedule hits a state of spongy morphing dynamics, to put it lightly. Things start later in the day and are for shorter periods and perhaps don’t always happen every day of the week. And this changes week to week.
So what to do now? Sometimes younger kids can be shipped off to the grandparents’ house for a week or two, that is, if that option is available. But that is just a few weeks of the summer months. You then have to plan in some other activities, and if you still have money in your bank account after that, have to do some sort of a family vacation. How nice would it be if YOU, as the parent, could take off the same amount of time as your children do when they are on summer break? In Europe, many people get entire months off to go on vacation, but not us in the US, we are a work-to-succeed driven type of society. We accrue vacations and use them only when we think we can get away from work. As a result, we keep working and have to ship our kids off to have someone else manage and structure their time.
The vacation time is what creates memories that last. Camps do that as well and you may meet a friend of a lifetime there. But I think if you are going to spend gobs of money on a summertime activity, make it that of the vacation. It’s a time when you are together and that is where family memories stem from. It can be a few simple days camping or something like a few weeks traveling abroad.
Camps are costly, they seem to average anywhere from $100 – $300/week where we live. I’m sure depending on your socio-economic status, that could be higher or lower. Regardless, it is money that you don’t spend during the school year and frequently only covers part of the day that you are away. Then when camps are over, you have to pick up your children or pay someone else to do that, or have them stay in extended hours or put them in a day care or something.
If you have teens that are still living at home, you could have them pick up and handle your younger children…but that comes at a price as well. Teens have their own lives, they may have jobs or they may simply want to just hang out with their friends. This all depends on your family’s dynamics. For the most part though, if you, as parents, are working, your teens are largely unsupervised. They are exploring their own adolescence and learning how to be young adults…and if they are prepping to go to college, then your experience is very different (especially from a cost perspective).
Assuming that you don’t have teens to watch over the younger ones and you have someone at home to watch the kids (e.g., a stay-at-home parent, other family member or a nanny/baby sitter), you still need to socialize your young ones. Normally, during the school year, you can do that via playdates, but if your community is anything like ours (and communities vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city and state to state), you have to be a project manager to schedule these playdates. During the summer, your kid’s playdate times now compete with other children’s schedules of camps and vacations. For us, the number of playdates have dropped considerably because of this. And, unfortunately, this doesn’t change unless everyone else changes or you are in a community that does not consist of family’s striving to get ahead and thus over-scheduling their kids in activities away from the home.
Can you see the dilemma that we, as a society, have created? We want the best for our kids but sometimes we believe that that means that we herd them off to activities or camps or daycare all day while we work to “succeed” or just survive. My wife and I made a conscious decision when we had our first daughter. My wife gave up her career and all of her time to be sure that she was there when our kids went to school and when they came home, as well as during the summer. But that comes with a cost, many costs. We don’t have the family income that those around us have, we don’t have the luxury to go to Europe for a week or two, or even to Hawaii. But we are guaranteed that our kids have a parent giving our kids the values and guidance that we believe in, and not that of a potentially dis-interested 3rd party. Sure, we want them to do camps, but not 100% of the time. There are plenty of people bringing up latch-key kids, kids who let themselves in the door after school or an activity and are then forced to fend for themselves until their parents get home. I’m not saying that this is the wrong way to do it, just a different way, and a path that we decided not to pursue for many reasons.
So what can be done about this? Unfortunately, I don’t think much. And I don’t think that it is wrong to have activities during the year (school time and summer). This summer, each of my kids is doing something that they love. My 12 year old is at the School of American Ballet in NYC studying ballet. My 9 year old is in gymnastics camp. And my 7 year old is in an acting camp. These are all activities that they are passionate about. But I do think that kids need to have some down time, time where they can have unstructured play with their siblings and friends. Even time alone to themselves is good. It breeds creativity and independence. It depends on their personality and they will let you know what they want to do quite often than not. It is your job to try to accommodate their wishes most of the time. Obviously, it can’t be all of the time due to the “financial and scheduling nightmare” that all parents must manage. A few days this summer, my 7 year old picked up the school directory and on her own, called her friends to schedule a playdate. When you child does this, you need to try to make sure that their efforts are rewarded and they get those playdates, whether they are that same day or shortly there after. It builds their confidence and even their independence. Not all kids will do that though, some will need to be helped along the way, but if you and your significant other are off working, you might miss these times when your kids do assert themselves and try to make their own decisions.
If you are in a situation where both parents work, or you have to have your kids in daycare or camps, be sure that when you ARE around, that you focus on them. Find out what they did at those camps, who their friends are, what activities they enjoyed doing the most. Then, when you do have downtime with them, you can work with their needs and their excitement. When I was young, we had much more leeway in terms of growing up and discovering who we are. It’s not gone now, but it definitely takes a bit more effort by the parents to nurture their children along their development.
Remember, your kids are only young once and they grow up faster than you can believe. Their young formative age is where their confidence and personalities are created. Some qualities kids are born with, others have to be grown and nourished in order for them to succeed. If we over-structure or ignore our children, I think we are doing them a disservice. They are our future and the values and norms that we provide them when they are young will be carried with them throughout their lives and will be passed on to their children. You just need to decide what those values will be.
What are your kids doing this summer? Are their schedules super-structured or very loose? How much time do you spend with them doing things that they want to do? Are you confined by your budget? Are you building memories with or without them? Personally, I wish that I could have done more for and with my kids already. I too am governed by schedules and a very limited budget, but my wife and I do what we can. Are our children better people because of our efforts? We certainly hope so, but in this day and aged of stressed out parents and the will to succeed and get ahead, I’m a bit worried that we are losing sight of what truly matters – the nurturing and development of our future.
HTD says: Summer vacation is a short time during the year. Be sure to make the best of it, for and with your children!