Last year I wrote a now infamous blog post titled "Top 10 Ways to Give Your Kids a 1970s Summer." It has been read and shared over one million times, and has appeared on a variety of websites from general parenting to outdoor/free range parenting, to humorous parenting. Ironically, I wrote it in a matter of minutes, when my kid’s school year was winding down and I was dreading the modern mom’s responsibility of filling up 12 weeks of summer with fun, fun, fun! A summer where I was yet again expected to be my kid’s full time summer cruise director, camp coordinator, and academic, theatrical arts, and science based enrichment activities provider. So why did the article resonate with so hundreds of thousands of parents? Were our lazy, old fashioned, disconnected, and make up your own fun summers of our youth really that terrific? Turns out they actually were.
Back then, and you can decide which decade I am talking about — the '70s or '80s — there were no expectations of a fun summer. It was just something that occurred organically, from out on our neighborhood streets where we played kick the can, ran through sprinklers, rode our bikes from one kid’s house to the next, and created our own games from nothing, with nothing, and with little parental supervision. We had imaginations and time. Lots and lots of time, as in long days and weeks without having to be somewhere or do something. Seems crazy in the year 2015, when summer has morphed into another event in the rat race that childhood over-achievement has become, that we would allow our children to actually be bored, be still, be in their own mind, not in a screen, a class, a camp, or enduring 12 straight hours of organized experiences. We have bought into the busy is better mentality. And it has all lead to a point that if your kids are NOT attending a STEM, soccer, theatre, cooking, dance, archery, cross fit, mathematics, swimming, sailing, classical music and poetry, meditation, kayaking, and build your own organic garden camp this summer, then shame on you. If you are not enthusiastically crossing events off the “100 Things You Need to Do This Summer” list, you're failing. You’re not being a good summer parent if the only plans on your summer kid’s calendar is to not have a plan.
Ironically, towards the end of this school year, when my mind again returned to what kind of summer my kids were going to have, a slew of articles came out in support of and benefits of an actual boring summer. With titles like, “The Science-Backed Benefits of Being Bored,” “Slow Summer Days:Why Our Kids Are Not Signed Up for Everything,” “I’m Opting for a ‘Slow Parenting’ Summer,” and “Why Summer Boredom is Beneficial for Kids and Parents,” I began to feel plenty of motherly company in giving my kids a mostly lazy summer. There are an abundance of wonderful summer opportunities, experiences, and enrichments we can give our children now, so why the desire to go back to a decade where the only experiences our parents gave us were most likely not actually given or provided, but rather created by us, the children? Why all this new found love and nostalgia over having a do-nothing summer?
Because honestly, we’re tired. Because we foolishly think by doing more, by going and going, and going, by throwing our kids into everything everywhere this summer and answering “We’ve been really busy!” to the question, “How has your summer been?” makes us a better parent. It doesn’t. Deep down, it’s just exhausting, both for the parents and the kids. I don’t know about you, but during the school year, my family rises at dawn and goes full blast for 15 straight hours. By June I’m in a full on “I can no longer keep this schedule up” induced coma. I just want to NOT be busy anymore. I want to look you in the eye, and totally and 100% guilt free, answer the “How is your summer going” question with a big, fat, “We’ve done plenty of nothing. And it’s been plenty of awesome.”
So what exactly did we do way back when? What filled our days before day camp, iPads, and supervised playdates? Well, plenty of play — simple, active, outdoor play. Maybe an occasional day trip here and there, and if we were really lucky, a two week family vacation (including several days riding in the back of a station wagon), where we went to visit Grandma, or other extended family. And on those days when boredom creeped in? When for just a few minutes we forgot our imaginations? That’s when our moms simply said, “Figure it out.” And you know what? We actually did.
This summer, we will do some day trips here and there. We will go to the library, to an aquarium, see a movie or two. We will spend about a month at our family’s lake house where for many long days the boys will be responsible for their own fun. Days will go by with nowhere to be, nothing on a schedule, and nothing to do. At first, they will moan and complain and curse the uneventful days.
And then something extraordinary will happen.
They will slowly unwind, downshift so to speak, and embrace the un-busy. And it won’t actually be painful, rather the boredom and stillness will become a blessing. We will read books, rock in chairs, play cards. They will swim when they want, not when I say. They will take walks and play ball on their own, not when I say to. They will adapt to the slowness of the days gradually, until it becomes their new normal. Sure, they will bicker, grow impatient, behave anxiously, and crave a perfectly planned day. Having come off the insanity of a school year where 12 hours of their days are filled with planned schooling, sports, clubs, and activities, the adjustment to doing nothing can be difficult. They may even struggle to get through mundane days that have no direction and offer no reward, but isn’t that what real life deals us as adults?
If I can give my kids a summer experience where they inherently learn to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, where their minds and thoughts and imaginations become the best activity provider they have, then I will have given them the best summer ever. The difficulty is making all that happen in a time when society fights back everyday on allowing it to, when kids are given a crutch to fun every second of every day. When answering the question with “We’ve been so busy!” is still the most popular, normal, and socially acceptable answer to give.
It won't be my answer.
So go ahead and ask me, “How’s your summer been?” and I will answer, “It’s been the best summer of nothing-ness we have all ever had. Thanks for asking.”
Make it your best nothing summer too. As adults, your kids will thank you.