It’s that time of year. In a handful of days, the kids will be out of school. While many of us wish our children could experience an idyllic summer of lazy, unplanned adventures they’ll cherish forever, it’s not a realistic notion for most families — at least not on a daily basis. In fact, for a lot of parents, the opposite is true: Summer vacation creates stress when it comes to coordinating activities for their kids once school ends.
“It’s not stressful, it’s more like frantic panic,” says Josephine Xiong, of Natick, a working mother of two boys, ages 9 and 5. Since Xiong and her husband work full-time they require full-time care for their children during the summer. Fortunately, their younger child’s preschool offers a summer program. But finding a camp that interests their older son and meets their scheduling needs is challenging.
For the previous three summers he went to a YMCA camp. “A bus would pick him up at 8 a.m. and drop him off at 5 p.m.,” says Xiong. “It’s a busy, structured day, the kids go from one activity to another: boating, canoeing, archery, fishing.”
It was also a lot. A lot of activity for her son, and, with bus costs and early drop-off or pickup fees, a lot of money for the summer.
“You shouldn’t have to take out a loan to finance summer camp,” says Lovern Moseley, a psychologist in Boston Medical Center’s child psychiatry unit. “But discuss with your kids what they’d enjoy doing in the summer. You may not be able to meet all their needs, but maybe you can meet halfway.”
And that’s what Xiong ultimately did — after much cajoling from their son, she and her husband decided to send him to his grandparents’ home in Seattle for the summer.
“He is excited, and I’m happy I’m able to give him the downtime he wants,” she says. “He’ll be learning about a different environment and taking part in some programming they have there too.”
A balance of structured and less structured time is important for kids to have during the summer, says Jennifer Gentile, a Boston child psychologist. While kids might feel they want free, open days it can be a difficult transition after months of highly structured school days.
“They might feel useless and unsure of what to do with the freedom. Forming slight guidelines right off the bat is a good idea,” says Kate Roberts, a school adjustment counselor and therapist. Even if you’re not sending your child to camp it’s a good idea to establish a wake-up time and a few tasks to create purpose for getting through the day. “You might consider having your child do an activity in the morning, then free time in the afternoon, some family time later in the day with a little more free time before bed,” she says.
Moseley says to avoid extended periods of unsupervised time. “That’s when problems arise, when kids are prone to become involved in things that aren’t good for them. You can leave older children on their own for a couple hours at a time, but not all day.”
Christine Koh, an author and editor of BostonMamas
.com, whose daughters are 10 and 4, has experimented with various levels of “planned-ness” for her older daughter during the summer. Sometimes she has overscheduled; on other occasions her daughter hasn’t taken to the activities Koh planned.
“Mapping out summer fills me with anxiety,” says Medford-based Koh. This year, she has taken a more casual approach, waiting until the last minute to make commitments. She will send her older daughter to alternate weeks of camp (her younger attends year-round preschool).
“On the off weeks, she has a chance to be a kid. I don’t want to lock her into too much stuff,” says Koh, who works from home, which allows for some flexibility in her schedule. “I wanted to leave some serendipitous space — if my schedule opens up, I’d like for us to be able to do something together.”
“Summer is a time to bring your village in,” says Koh, who embraces an idea of a rotating camp in which five families work together to balance care for the kids.
“Each parent decides to take all of the kids for one day a week. That way every parent gets four covered workdays and one day of chaos. It involves a bit of juggling and a lot of Google calendar time.” While Koh couldn’t get the concept up and running in time for this summer, she hopes to make it work next year.
For parents who stay at home with kids, or have more flexible work schedules, shuttling multiple kids among various camps and activities can be exhausting. Panamai Manadee plans to avoid that.
“I don’t want to spend my summer in a car,” says Mana-dee. “So my motto is ‘keep it local.’ We don’t have to drive very far to any of the activities my kids will be involved in this summer.”
Manadee, who runs an interior design business out of her Nahant home, has three children, ages 9, 7, and 6 months. Her two eldest participate in a sailing program three days a week. They’ll also take part in a weeklong STEM camp at Swampscott High School, and a tennis camp that takes place a few days a week for a month. Her daughter will participate in an art program as well.
One apprehension Manadee has about the summer is how she’ll limit her children’s screen time. “It’s very hard to get them to unplug — I want to keep my kids outdoors and active.” She’s even toyed with the idea of getting rid of cable for the summer.
Moseley believes parents should take an active role to diminish screen time during the summer. One way to combat it is with active learning.
“Parents need to be mindful of summer-learning loss. They should work on making sure their kids maintain their academic growth over time by creating opportunities to learn,” she says.
Moseley directs parents to the Boston Public Schools website (www.bostonpublicschools
.org), which provides summer reading lists from kindergarten through grade 12 and information about low-cost and free activities geared to different age groups.
“Find out what areas your kids are interested in. They might like biographies or chapter books or mysteries, and help them access those materials,” she says. “You can also find inexpensive workbooks geared to all levels at Target.”
Summer should have plenty of opportunities for play and rejuvenation; and don’t be afraid to let your children be bored. “Sometimes being bored can make creative things happen,” says Koh. Send them out in the yard to fend for themselves; leave them alone with various craft materials, or a deck of cards. “When my 10-year-old was bored recently, she decided to make dinner for the whole family,” says Koh. “It was really great.”
Parents should remember that they need to recharge in the summer too; carving out space for family fun time is important whether it’s away on vacation or in the backyard.
“Unstructured, child-directed time is a wonderful way for families to connect,” says Gentile. “Planting a garden and making water balloons can be the stuff that makes long-term summer memories.”Jaci Conry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.