Summertime: Making The Livin’ Easy With Kids

By and

Posted in: Grade School, Parenting Concerns, Teenagers, You & Your Family

Topics: Healthy Living, Relationships

When I was a kid, there weren’t what you’d call choices when it came to summer. I could go to camp, or, well…I could go to camp.

‘But don’t worry,’ my mom told me, ‘when you get older, that’s when you’ll have choices.’


When I did, in fact, get older, I was told I could be a camp counselor, or I could work. One thing went without saying: I was going to participate in some sort of structured activity. Period.

Things have changed a lot since those days. Kids now push for a loose, “free” summer, but if anything, we’re structuring them even more. Whereas it didn’t even occur to me to object, kids nowadays are starting to grumble.

How many times do we hear, with the patented and perfunctory eye-roll, “Hey, I work really hard all year in school, sports, music whatever—all the things you make me do, all the things I have to do—and summer is time to relax. I just want to hang out with my friends. No schedule. Isn’t that why it’s called vacation?”

And you know what? They might be right. Many of our kids are, in fact, overscheduled. It seems there’s considerably less free time than in the old days.

Much of this is driven, of course, by the increasingly frenetic lives of parents. More than ever before, both parents (at least in the U.S.) need to work to make ends meet. Dinners are tough, if not impossible, to schedule. Free time with family becomes, ironically, not free at all.

Free time has its costs.

We might even argue that these changing social structures have led to an increased desire to make summers more productive, to essentially extend the school year, and provide new academic and highly structured learning experiences for children and adolescents.

This brings us back to a key question:

What are summers actually for?

To be fair, the answer to that query traces back to the agricultural days of our 19th and early 20th century practices. Offspring needed to be home to help with the harvest. Over time, however, summer evolved into a carefree time that we kind of took for granted. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that dreaded structure crept back into the picture.

The challenge, then, is to find a balance. How do we set the stage early on so that summer can be a time to recharge, to actually have fun together as a family? And, how do we mix these needs with the economic realities that we can’t afford, literally, to ignore?

Here are some tips for parents to consider now that summer is officially upon us:

  • Kids of all ages need time to play and relax. With increasing demands throughout the school year, summer is a time for our kids and teens to slow things down. Playing and socializing are not idle tasks. Whether involved in camp and community programs, or immersed in musical and athletic activities, kids are learning new ways to make friends, communicate, develop new skills, and build their confidence and self-esteem. Even having the time to just practice an instrument, read books, or even play videogames, the freedom to pursue areas of interest without terribly onerous external demands provides our kids a much needed breath of fresh air.
  • Balance structure and unstructured time. The appropriate kind of structure requires a fair amount of preparation and homework for all parents. Some kids thrive on day camp, while others are more than ready to leave home for an overnight camp. One thing is clear, however: most kids will need some help with all this. No matter how much they may assert otherwise, few children can set up a program for themselves. That caveat applies whether your child is pursuing the most carefree summer imaginable, or one chock full of activities. You’ll need to provide some direction. This is probably the trickiest kind of parenting. You need to create some kind of equation that takes into consideration your child’s capacity for freedom versus structure, your child’s level of responsibility, and what you can realistically do to enforce whatever plans you put in place. This is different for every child and every year. For some, too much structure won’t allow the opportunity to learn to make their own schedule. For others, too much freedom won’t allow them to enjoy a sense of accomplishment. Learning to make plans, to manage time…these are essential skills, and the summer is an ideal time to practice them.
  • Decide if your kids should remain at home or take off for the summer. While I (Gene) was never allowed to stay home during the summer, some children can make good use of day programs in the community. Again, we do need to help them figure out which programs are best, and how to navigate the balancing act between outside activities and hanging out at home. But, how do we as parents consider what is best for our children? Going to summer camp or another program away from home can be a life-changing experience. Programs abroad, when affordable, can be nothing short of transformative for teens. Your kids may be understandably anxious about the prospect of going away for all or part of the summer, but most, particularly those who are adept at making friends and adjusting quickly to change, do extremely well after the initial pangs of homesickness. Still, be wary if your child is excessively shy. There’s nothing pathological about being shy, but it isn’t the best temperament for summer camp—and a trial-by-fire separation will likely do more damage than good. Instead, start these kids with day programs or home-based activities.
  • Start your summer planning early in family life: initiate conversations, and set precedents and expectations sooner rather than later. Helping your kids talk with you about their life experiences is very important—the earlier, the better. These conversations are especially handy when it comes to making summer plans. From the time kids are in fourth or fifth grade, let them be part of the planning process. Do they want to learn a new sport like tennis or swimming? Do they want to spend time outdoors? Are they interested in spending time at camp with other kids? Winter break is typically the right time to start this discussion. And, when you do it, remember that being a part of a family is not necessarily a democracy. If you as a parent have the expectation that your child should be productive in the summer, make that expectation clear early on. It’s far easier for a child to choose from pre-determined options than to come up with possibilities himself.
  • Understand the emotional and motivational traits of your kids, and the kinds of skills they need—whether it be social interaction or something specific. Every child and teenager is different. Some are driven, and others laid back. For the highly-motivated, it may be a tad easier to plan for the summer. For example, it’ll be obvious, if your child wants to pursue baseball, or to practice painting, or get better at rock climbing. As best you can, match what your super-motivated child wants with what you can provide, and then outline a plan together. And sometimes, with the super-super-motivated kids, it may be wisest to just get them to slow down. Learning to kick back and relax matters more now than ever. At the other end of that spectrum, there are the kids who just can’t seem to get themselves started. They can’t articulate what they want to do, when or where they want to do it, and how the summer should be spent. These kids need far greater direction, even imposed direction, as well as lots of validation, coaching, encouragement and positive feedback. The summer may be a great time for these kids to learn motivational skills, and to develop organized ways of learning—skills that may help them during the academic year, on weekends, and throughout summers in the future.
  • Take your needs into account: what do you want for your summer? Most parents work in the summer. So, while we want to allow our kids to have new, refreshing experiences, us staying at home so they can do so may not be an option. It’s also a time when we need a vacation. Think about what you want for your time off. Do you want a couple of weeks at the beach, camping, or visiting relatives? Do you want a setting where you have some time alone, or do you really want to connect with your partner and kids? Summertime is not just for kids; parents’ needs should be brought into the equation as well.
  • Don’t forget the joy and tradition of family vacations. Most of us remember with great and yet highly-edited clarity the times we shared with family in the summer. We recall the bonding and laughter; we might forget the close quarters in a rented house void of a good breeze. But either way, you’re creating a shared story—and there is excellent data in support of having stories you can tell while your family moves on.
  • Have fun! It goes without saying that the main point of the summer is to focus on having a good time. It’s a time for re-connection with ourselves and with each other, for slowing down and engaging in ways that we rarely have the time or space to enjoy during the academic year. The paradox? Well, to make the livin’ easy, you’re gonna need to do some serious planning. But it’s worth it.

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Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Youn...

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.