As summer break inches closer, I’m torn between anticipating the fun of all the things my kids and I will do together (Berry picking! Road trips! Swimming!) and the knowledge that it’s just a lot of togetherness and a lot of unstructured time, and that likely also means a lot of friction. Plus, as a work-from-home parent who is used to a nice chunk of quiet work time in the middle of the day, managing my work while there are kids around further complicates things.
It can be nice to set aside early wake-ups, lunch packing, and homework for a while. We all love to stay in our pajamas and roll with whatever we feel like doing around the house. The problem is that it’s a bit like junk food. It tastes good at the time, but do it every day, and we get cranky and sluggish. This house thrives on routine.
After struggling with the balance of fun and structure for a few summers, I can’t say this summer will be perfect—in fact, I’m quite sure it’ll be wildly imperfect—but I’m clinging to a few sanity-saving ideas from smart friends, as well as my own trial and error:
Be either all in or all out.
I love this article from the wise Catherine Newman, who alternates between giving her tween and teen children full attention and no attention at all. There’s none of this “let-me-just-check-my-email” in the middle of a card game or a walk, nor are her kids allowed to interrupt her work time for minor queries (like me, Newman works from home). This lets her be fully available to her kids, and then fully available to her own work, so her kids are both secure in their own ability to entertain themselves, and in their mother’s attentiveness.
I’m not good at this, but I’m working on it. Even if I’m just washing the dishes, or I need 20 uninterrupted minutes for a shower, I have to remind myself (and them) that they can wait. “I’m going to finish up here, and then I can help you/play with you/read to you.” They will manage, and it will benefit all of us.
Enlist the neighbors.
In this parent-arranged playdate world of ours, summer doesn’t look much like our childhood summers of wandering the neighborhood. So many kids are now in camps or under the watchful eye of a parent, that it’s harder to just open the door and give our kids that freedom. My neighbors and I are working on this. We all want to get our kids outside more. So we’ve added each other’s cell phone numbers to our own phones, and we’ll text the group things like “kids are in the front yard in the sprinkler, yours are welcome” or “kicking my kid outside, anyone available to play?” Bonus: We’ve all become closer, not just the kids.
Plan and maintain a rough structure.
A friend of mine who works full-time has her kids sit down with their sitter at the beginning of the summer and make a wish list of activities, balancing low-cost and free activities with some special occasion outings. I do this too, and it meets the twin goals of managing expectations and adding a bit of structure to our calendar.
Similarly, a little daily order goes a long way. “What should we do today” struggles can easily turn into hours of inertia. Some weeks in our house, that structure is a morning camp for all the kids. Every week, it’s no screens at all until afternoon. Late afternoon might be swim time. Evenings, it might be baseball games. Whatever your family choices, a little bit of knowing how the days might go is reassuring to everyone.
Relax into the summer.
A little structure is good, yes, but it’s called summer vacation for a reason. It’s going to feel different than the school year hustle. No one, parent or child, will get as much official work done. So maybe let’s back off a bit on the math workbooks? We parents can stand to ease up too—we can likely build a bit of a summer schedule into our own work as well, whether it’s shorter hours or actually *gasp* taking all that vacation time we’re entitled to.
In the midst of figuring out summer and saving our sanity with a bit of routine, I know I need to keep my eye on the magic, too—the sticky heat and the rumbling thunder, the long twilights and firefly flashes, the flip-flop ease of summer dressing. I know, too, that it’s all fleeting, and that each of my kids’ summers marks another step closer to summer jobs and internships and then—too soon—to that first grown-up summer when they won’t come home at all.
When we’re tearing our hair out over sibling bickering and wet swim towels all over the floor, it’s easy to forget: Now is the time to take lazy walks in the woods and let them play in the creek. Now is the time to occasionally throw out “should” and have ice cream for lunch. Now is the time to blow bubbles and wear swimsuits at the picnic table and linger in the yard until the dusky light fades.
This summer is now, and it’s ours to savor and enjoy. September, and all the Septembers to follow, will come soon enough.