Google “Are kids too busy in the summer?” and you will find a case of polar opposite search results. Many hits will claim we’ve created a group of over-anxious, over busy little people. The others will tell you how to keep your kids busy on a limited budget. The underlying commonality is parental drive to keep children on the go.
As the parent of three girls nine and under I will admit that I enter summer break with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Saying goodbye to alarm clocks and hello to anytime of the day trips to the park, pool, zoo, etc. promises a freedom I long for. Welcoming all day every day family togetherness? Well, any honest parent would admit that requires some extra prayer.
However, it seems our fears that familial peace will prevail combined with our culturally driven message that busy equals better has taken the break right out of summer.
Recently I heard a parent say she wanted her middle elementary daughter to “make some decisions so that she can focus on one thing and excel at it.” My brain waffled with how we ask children who still need reminder to brush their teeth at night to identify their talent that will win them high school letters and college scholarships. The pressure to determine their stand-out gift (under the assumption that they possess one) without falling behind seems to mean activity rigor fresh out of the womb that steals opportunity to simply have fun. Beyond that, it means slave driving success when they have the chance to “get ahead” because they aren’t in school all day.
And it’s more than sports because I’ve received all the pamphlets on church camps, arts camps, academic camps, and the like. Whether the gift is evangelism to be the next Mother Teresa, or painting to be the next Van Gogh, or poetics to produce the next Shel Silverstein, opportunities rain plentiful.
“The experiences we thought kids had to have before high school has moved down to junior high and now elementary. Soon we’ll be talking about leadership opportunities for toddlers.” William Doherty, professor of family studies and director of the marriage and family program at the University of Minnesota, said on interview.
Now, before you assume I’m some extremist, anti-camp and opportunity, let me assure you that I’m not. Our girls will go to vacation bible school. They will take swimming lessons. They will come to mother-daughter dance class. One will attend her first volleyball camp and one is going to put on her running shoes and blaze down the track. I’m happily penning these opportunities onto our summer calendar because I’m in complete agreement with Alvin Rosenfeld that, “Enrichment activities are perfect. They add a lot to kids’ lives.” I just also agree with his assessment that, “we’ve lost the ability to balance them with down time, boring time.”
There is need to let our kids be kids. To run through sprinklers and build forts and pick dandelions. They need breathability in their life to decide if they want to shoot hoops in the driveway or go to the library event or see if the swift fox is actually out of his hole at the zoo. They should be able to hang upside down on the couch and read or sit right side up and play a game. They ought to make messes with paint and get smelly in the yard. In the words of clinical psychologist Paula Bloom, “Kids need to know they’re not defined by what they do. They need time to play, experiment, rest and figure out who they are.” Furthermore, they need to learn how to make good choices in the midst of free time so they don’t make regrettable ones when life offers them unstructured time down the road.
There is a fine line between parenting in love and parenting out of fear. Between choosing summer activities because we believe it will benefit our kids and choosing summer activities because we are afraid we’re withholding some sort of future success if we don’t. It’s difficult to decipher and I’m right there with you asking myself the same questions and prayerful that we’re making healthy decisions.
At risk is sending the message that our children are special because of what they do rather than who they are. And that’s big stuff.
Each of these camps and opportunities are in themselves good. It’s just important as we make summer choices for our children we examine our motives.
- Why are putting our children in the activities we are? Does it boil down to the search commonality that we think we need to keep our kids on the go? If so, halt. There is value to kids discovering themselves through the process of free play. And you are not a bad parent if you don’t sign them up for a million things. We’ve let a “keeping up with the Jones’s” mindset zap us emotionally and financially. There need be no guilt in pulling back from school year regiment for summer freedom.
- Do your children want to do the activities you’re considering? As it pertains to “getting ahead” in some sort of “special talent” reality indicates it being much more about parent than student dreams. Ask your child. This might mean hearing that your child has no interest in something you wish or even believe they could find success in, but better to support them and have your child feel understood than press them towards exhaustion and resentment. If they want to do it and the checkbook + details align, by all means sign up.
- Is it costing family togetherness? It is important that our children not just be productive but good. And those qualities don’t mutually align. Love is nurtured and character is formed. Can that be found within these unique summer opportunities? Absolutely. But your kid needs to know your heart for them to grow up knowing the values you pray they live. Make sure in the midst of your schedules you protect precious family time.
Be prayerful as you plot out these next few months. We need to put the break back in summer. To be mindful to make this an enjoyable time.
“We are far too willing to throw away our child’s present for some ill fated quest for a better future that rarely materializes,” John O’Sullivan warns. “The pressure and anxiety is stealing one thing our kids will never get back; their childhood.”