As early June comes to pass, our compulsory educated offspring often limp towards the academic finish line. With bloody knees and sweat-soaked shirts labeled with their name and number, they stumble across the spray painted line like lemmings over a cliff, and in ranked order.
“I made it”, they think, breathing heavy with their rosy cheeks pressed to the cold asphalt, overwhelmed with a sense of relief; a promise of a carefree, relatively unstructured summer filled with sun, fun, friends and (above all else), NO SCHOOL!
Some of our kiddos who find school particularly stressful view summer as a time devoid of anxiety, or of parents hounding them about homework; devoid of the guilt and/or shame associated with feeling like a “failure”, “lazy”, “stupid”, or “uncool”; devoid of having to lie (and regret lying) about completing assignments, or dealing with the strain of teacher reprimands, or navigating a harsh social environment, or otherwise being reminded daily of their weaknesses (while their strengths are belittled or neglected entirely).
Similarly, parents may also appreciate the relief of not having to ride their kids incessantly about their schoolwork; of not having to desperately grasp at the myth that they can completely control their free-willed kiddo and assure their well-being.
Over the summer, we may be less likely to yell (and regret yelling) at our children due to our own stress and frustrations, stemming largely from a gut-wrenching sense of responsibility that we must actualize our children’s potential for them, despite the massive obstacle of school.
“Ensure that some of your child’s leisure time is productive, even if it means choosing at least one new hobby to develop over the summer.”
Given this trend, it makes sense that families prefer less structure during the summer, and honestly, that’s not a bad thing! It can be a time to get back to baseline for everyone, to improve parent-child and parent-parent relationships, to enjoy quality time with our family, and to experience new opportunities for social and emotional development at sleepovers, camps, and free-time to play and grow.
The problem that may arise, however, is when their summer days become dominated with hours of TV, video games, social media, unproductive leisure time, inconsistent sleep/diet/exercise schedules, etc. Parents and children both develop comfortable habits that interfere with positive growth, behavior management, and complicate the fall transition back into school.
That being said, it is very important to maintain some sort of semi-structured schedule over the summer. Here are a few evidence-based things to consider:
9 Parenting Tips for Structuring Your Child’s Summer:
1. Have Your Children Set Their Own Goals
These do not have to be academic; in fact, it may be better if they’re not. Goals might include getting a summer job, developing one character trait that they find desirable, increasing their fastball by 3mph, or making 3 good friends at camp. The idea is that, at all times, we as humans should be goal driven.
Going on autopilot and navigating aimlessly through screentime, pool fun, etc. should not be done in exclusivity. Keep in mind that goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Based.
2. Screentime Regulations
This is a tough one. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours a day of screen time (includes computer, TV, phone, games, anything relying on a screen) for school-aged youth, and zero screen time for those younger than two. This is largely based on psychological research that has found that 2+ hours of low-quality screentime (e.g., Call of Duty, op-ed Youtube, shows that glorify frailty) can negatively impact school performance, socioemotional development, and behavioral regulation.
However, we mental health professionals also recognize the reality of the igeneration — the generation of kids born after 1994 who have never lived in a world without smartphones — who live in a culture based around technology, and who can reap cognitive and social developmental benefits from high-quality screentime (e.g., Minecraft, RPGs, educational, shows that demonstrate resiliency).
Technology is not a bad thing! It’s necessary for human progress and is a large part of relating to peers, but unregulated technology and media exposure can be harmful.
This is especially true during the summer when our youths’ first go-to is Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Xbox, Netflix and so on. One way to begin setting a summer screentime plan is by going to AAP Media Plan, which customizes a plan based on your family’s needs.
It includes suggestions like screen-free areas, screen-free times, media manners, decision-making regarding what or what not to watch/play/engage in, as well as general safety considerations and how to avoid imbalance of sleep, diet, and exercise.
3. Summer “Academics” (Completed Before Screentime)
OK, look, I’m not a monster. I’m not saying every kid needs to enroll in summer school, slaving away like kidnapped children from the Temple of Doom; HOWEVER, research shows that without some educational rigor over the summer, students will abandon their much needed academic mindset and fall backward on retention.
This makes the August-October time period a lot more difficult and stressful for all parties. Providing a list of preferred educational options for your kiddo can help with this.
For example, for a 12-18-year-old, every other day they might watch a Ted Talks video or read an academic article on something they find interesting, and then write a 1-2 paragraph critical analysis of it. Or, perhaps they choose to complete a project over the summer that may help achieve future goals (e.g., college), such as a resume building “thesis” on some preferred topic.
“Research shows that without some educational rigor over the summer, students will abandon their much needed academic mindset and fall backward on retention.”
For younger children, this may involve academic games on the computer, such as those found at www.abcmouse.com, and printable reading, writing or math activities.
4. Reading (Completed Before Screentime)
This does not have to be something academic but should involve reading age-appropriate material of their choice daily for an age-appropriate amount of time.
For children 12-18, that may be a Stephen King book for 45+ minutes, while a 5-7-year-old may just read their favorite bedtime book or a rising reader book for 10+ minutes. The cognitive benefits of reading are well documented, and it behooves us all to read more.
5. Chores (Completed Before Screentime)
I often (colorfully) tell my more entitled young clients that parent(s) are actually only obligated to provide three things: 1) Physiological needs, which technically could be grey, tasteless nutritional paste, and water), 2) Safety within their means, which usually means a roof over their head, running water, electricity, heating and air, and environmental protections (e.g., hygienic home, super basic thrift store clothing) and 3) access to compulsory education.
Everything else is a privilege, provided by the parent(s) because (ideally) they love them unconditionally and want them to flourish. Some privileges must be earned by demonstrating respect and responsibility.
“Parents and children both develop comfortable habits that interfere with positive growth and behavior management over the summer.”
Chores are a daily responsibility that I encourage all parents to instill in their children, especially over the summer. Again, these should be age appropriate and are meant to foster principles of responsibility and the practice of routine. These extend beyond basic care, by the way, such as keeping their room clean, cleaning after themselves, etc.
Examples of chores for younger children may include 5-10 minute tasks, like helping with the dishes, sweeping a room, or cleaning some windows. For older children, chores should be lengthier (e.g., 15-60 minutes) and may include home lawn care, trash collection or dusting around the house.
6. Scheduled Sleep, Diet, and Exercise
To avoid all-day snacking, couch-potatoeness and 3 AM gaming sessions, it’s important to schedule curfews, mealtimes, and rigorous activities.
You may consult your pediatrician on appropriate sleep, diet, and exercise, but in general, children and adolescents need 8-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night (in sync with an appropriate and consistent circadian rhythm), 60 minutes of exercise a day, and 1600-2000 well-balanced calories of food, depending on age (schedule 3 meals and 2 snacks a day).
Regarding sleep, it’s recommended that your child or adolescent does not sleep in or go to bed too late.
7. Scheduled Activities with Family and/or Friends
Schedule times during the day where you have quality time as a family, such as dinners without screens or weekly outings (e.g., movies, park), and activities with friends from multiple domains (e.g., school, neighborhood) will help maintain positive relationships.
8. Productive Leisure Time
Ensure that some of your child’s leisure time is productive, even if it means choosing at least one new hobby to develop over the summer. This could include a sport or new form of exercise, learning to play an instrument, playing LEGOs or more advanced forms of engineering, honing athletic skills, or creating a personal website.
Essentially, any activity that yields a product, fosters self-improvement or care, or that you can imagine might look good on a college application.
9. Have Fun
I feel so lame for writing this, but it’s true. Good lord… what has becoming a father done to me?
Below is an example schedule for a 12-year-old. It doesn’t have to be this rigid: