Why I Don't Feel Guilty About My Tween Doing Nothing All Summer
It’s 11 a.m. on a sunny, summer Wednesday, and my tween is holed up in her room. I walk the dog, go grocery shopping, and put in a few hours of work. Three hours roll by and still nothing from my sixth-grader. I peek into her dim room to find her still in her pajamas, glued to her iPad.
“Hi honey,” I say from the doorway.
“Hi Mom,” she replies without looking up. I catch a whiff of unwashed hair mixed with the synthetically sweet tang of tropical body lotion.
I linger for a moment. My instinct is to urge her up and out of bed, get her to do something, but I let it go. “Don’t forget to eat,” I say as I close the door behind me.
A few years ago, this scene would have been unthinkable. When my two older girls were in elementary school, the thought of an unplanned summer threw me into an all-out panic. Visions of a house destroyed, dirty laundry littering the hall, and moldy sandwich crusts hidden behind the couch haunted me. Add to that the pressure of knowing their friends were laboring away at Math Camp, honing their rock climbing skills at Outdoor Adventure Camp, or “interning” at Horse Camp, and there was no way I was letting them hang around at home. I carted them off to day camp, Grandma and Grandpa camp, and planned field trips for the few unaccounted for days that dotted our calendar.
Between kindergarten and fourth grade, these scheduled summers worked for us. While homework, sports, and other activities filled their school year and weekends, my kids still had plenty of energy for more action between June and September. If I’d suggested they bum around at home, they might have gleefully embraced the idea for about 48 hours then whined incessantly about being bored. My summer would have been a never-ending loop of Mod Podge projects, Six Flags, the zoo, and chauffeuring them to and from friends’ houses. This was not the kind of summer I could deal with, and honestly, at that age they needed more structure.
When my oldest daughter came back from sleepaway camp and announced she wasn’t interested in day camp anymore, I freaked out. I tried to convince her she was out of her mind, clearly caught up in a cult conspiracy dedicated to sloth and intellectual deterioration. She didn’t budge. Since I couldn’t force her to go to camp, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or start a small business, I grudgingly agreed to let her do…nothing.
Ha, I thought. Let’s see how long she lasts.
For the first week, my deepest fears came true: She stayed in her pajamas 24/7, skipped showers, binge watched movies and sitcoms, and played endless hours of online games. She ate bowls of cereal all day, baked cookies and muffins, and snuck cheese puffs into the darkened TV room, which emitted a dank, sweaty odor whenever I opened the door. This extreme level of laid-back-ness triggered my mama guilt: Shouldn’t I be encouraging her to learn a new sport, read War and Peace, or at least watch a documentary? Wasn’t it my job to oversee her physical, emotional, and educational development all day, every day?
Week two started out much the same as week one, with lots of screen time, little bathing, and continued fretting on my part. Then something shifted. She asked me to take her to the pool to swim laps. She started walking the dog without groaning about it. She made plans with her friend one street over to walk into town for frozen yogurt. In between outings, my daughter opted for books over screens, started a photo collage, and sorted out and recycled a year’s worth of textbooks, papers, and projects.
I worried less as my daughter took more initiative in arranging her still very low-key days. Most of the time I let her do her thing and I did mine, but sometimes our paths gently crossed. We’d lie on my bed in the middle of the day and read our books together, a luxury I rarely indulge in. We took trips to the grocery store, baked, and went for the occasional stroll. There was still plenty of errand running and working at home for me and sleeping in and solo movie watching for her. The difference was, without time limits, set schedules, and a long list of must-dos, we both got to unwind a little. Our days ended with less stress and more smiles.
The truth is, we all need some downtime to reset. With the hectic schedule my kids keep during the school year, the summer is the only chance they have to do absolutely nothing. Giving my daughter the time and space to simply be inspired me to do the same. In a culture that values doing over being, staying in pajamas and watching movies all day for a week or two is basically an act of rebellion. In that case, I happen to know a certain tween — and her mom — eager to join the revolution, even if it’s only for the summer.
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