My 13-year-old son was going on at the dinner table about how his best friend logged some insane amount of hours on the new Legend of Zelda. “He played like 16 hours straight,” he said. Only, he didn’t say it like the kid was bonkers. I was the one who interpreted it that way. He said it like this young friend of his had everything going for him, and if it wasn’t for his mean, overbearing father, and the crusty old screen time limits we impose upon him in the summer, he’d be able to live the good life like his friend, who obviously does nothing but play Zelda from dawn until well after dusk.
I’d heard similar declarations from my 10-year-old daughter. She once told me about how her friend Jessica got to stay up all night watching Fuller House because her parents didn’t care about bedtimes in the summer, and called me a mean dad because I still put the kids to bed at the same time during the summer as I do in the school year.
Now listen, I don’t want to come off as some sort of a military-style dad. I don’t have a whistle like Baron von Trapp in The Sound Of Music. Our kids don’t line up or anything. And they surely do not sing us songs for entertainment. In fact, I’ve heard my children sing, and I know as a father I’m supposed to say they have the voices of angels, but that would be a lie. My children can’t hit a note to save their lives, and I’m comfortable admitting that.
What we do, however, is have a few rules and expectations that my children like to discuss openly as if they are serious hardships, compare their lives with those of their friends who do not have any expectations over the summer, and call me a mean dad.
I know that with the pandemic and all, a lot of parents have just taken their hands off the wheel when it comes to screen time because the options for keeping kids busy is limited. And if you took that route, and it’s right for your family, I get it. Please realize this is not me giving a guilt trip. There are days that I’m just over it, and on those days, I hand the kids tablets and then sit at the table and rub my temples.
But right now, my kids have been off-schedule and all over the place for months, and I’m kind of over it. So I don’t feel bad at all about giving them some structure.
For example, each of my three children has a summer workbook, and are expected to complete a two-page lesson Monday through Friday. It literally takes them 20 minutes, if they don’t whine incessantly.
They are expected to be in bed by 9 PM, because right now, I literally have them around me 24/7 and I need a break from them asking and asking for snacks and screen time. (I also need time to eat the expensive ice cream they don’t know about.) Across the board, regardless of the age, all three of my kids are moody jack wagons when I let them stay up late, and I’m just not going to put up with that on top working from home and living through a pandemic.
The kids have chores: doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the living room, managing a section of the yard. And honestly, it’s not like we live on a farm. We live in a suburb. No one is milking cows at 5AM, and let’s be real, they are the mess makers anyway. My wife and I aren’t the ones filling the sink with cereal bowls and hitting the toilet seat with pee.
I also expect the kids to do some sort of exercise because soccer and gymnastics are canceled. If I didn’t require this of them, complaining about how mean I am would be their only form of exercise. Not that they wouldn’t do it strenuously.
Altogether, everything I ask of my kids during summertime adds up to about three hours a day, which isn’t all that much. They complain about it, sure. But I’ve noticed that when I give them some expectations, a schedule, and some responsibilities, they actually complain less than when I just let them lounge around the house like a bunch of screen-addicted slugs.
I know that sounds strange, but on those days when I just let them watch screens all day — and to be frank, that’s all most kids in 2020 want to do — getting them off the devices feels like they are addicts and I took away their substance of choice. And that doesn’t feel like a good thing, for any of us.
So I give the kids a few things to keep them busy and productive. I want them to contribute to the family, while also developing their minds and bodies. I do it year-round, even in the summer, and my kids act like I’m the meanest dad in the history of parenting.
If you are on team “Mean Summer Parent” and your kids are going on about how you suck because you actually make them do … well, things, don’t worry. You are not alone. I’m over here waving the same flag. Besides, they’ll understand someday when they face the same challenges with their own complaining offspring.