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The Case for Letting Your Kids Have an '80s-Style Summer

I remember a lot of things about summertime when I was a kid. Riding my bike all over town. Playing with the garden hose and the sprinkler. Blowing bubbles, scribbling large swaths of sidewalk with colorful chalk, slurping on Popsicles and chomping Big League Chew. And in the ’90s, when I was a teenager, slathering my body with baby oil and my hair with Sun-In, and lounging in the sunshine with my copy of YM magazine or a dELiA’s catalog, not a care in the world.

You know what I don’t remember about my childhood summers? A lot of parental involvement.

That’s not to say I just ran totally amok; there were still house rules and guidelines, of course. But my parents let me freely decide how I wanted to spend my time. If I wanted to enroll in some kind of summer program or activity, fine; if I wanted to lounge around like a couch potato all day watching Judge Judy and daytime talk shows, that was fine, too. Nobody was overly concerned about screen time or brain rot or instilling that “hustle culture” work ethic Americans are famous for. And now that I’m a parent, I’m letting my kids spend their summer the exact same way.

During the school year, they’re always busy. There’s band and chorus and track and basketball and football, which mean multiple weekly practices, games, and recitals. There’s homework, the after-school STEM Club, and whatever other things my little joiners decide to sign up for. It’s always something, and with 4 kids, we’re perpetually running around — and, coincidentally, exhausted.

“The fact that parents often do too much at the expense of their children’s independence and a calmer home life isn’t a unique insight,” says a recent article in The Washington Post. “Research consistently shows a correlation between overinvolved parents and young adults with issues such as school burnout, inability to regulate their emotions, or anxiety and depression.” Parents, say researchers Leidy Klotz and Yael Schonbrun, are driven to overschedule by several factors: evolutionary (more networking, more focus on the children, would have helped strengthen the odds of a family’s survival); psychological (humans have a need to feel secure, so we pack things into our kids’ schedules that we think will help them succeed); and cultural (“We’ve really evolved into this culture of more is better … more parenting, more culture, more cultivating your kids’ interests, more activities, more diverse foods, talking to them more, you know, just more of everything,” Schonbrun says).

Klotz tells the Post that parents are overwhelmed, and rather than focus on subtracting something, we tend to add. “We so often think of what are our to-dos, what are the things that we should be doing, and very rarely think about what we can stop doing. And so over time, we’ve just got more and more and more on our plates,” he points out. And it’s true; like pretty much every other parent I know, I’m definitely guilty of this “more-is-more” mentality during the school year.

So when my kids have the better part of 3 months off from any and all obligations, you best believe I’m allowing them to take advantage and reclaim their time. I mean, if my boss told me to find something to do besides work from June to August, I’d be giddy at the prospect of an open, unscheduled stretch of time … as would almost anybody. Why should kids be any different? They can suffer from burnout just as much as adults can. Also, I’d be lying if I said that ditching the scheduled activities for a few months doesn’t benefit me, too. As the chief laundry-doer and chauffeur, I wholeheartedly approve of having no uniforms to wash or practices to shuttle them back and forth to. Pajamas all day? Even better.

Sure, my kids get bored at times; if your kid hasn’t whined “I’m booooored!” during the summer at some point, are you even a parent?! But I’m a firm believer that boredom — at least to a degree — is good for kids. It fosters creativity and innovation (plus, my answer is always, “Good! I have a list of chores you can do!” and you’d be surprised how quickly they can find something to occupy themselves. Like magic!).

I don’t care if my kids want to watch TikTok and play video games. They’ll balance it out eventually with bike rides and swimming pool days and chasing each other around the yard with Nerf guns. They have the entire school year to be scheduled to the max … and their entire adult lives to work the summer days away. What I can give them right now is permission to just relax and be, and let the magic of summertime create memories they’ll cherish long after the summer breaks are gone.

 

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