By Lisa Sugarman
Holy crap, we’re an inch away from summer starting! So you know what that means. It means that the dependable 8:00am to 2:30pm routine that’s occupied our kids for the last 180 days is going away. That beautiful thing we call school that fills our kids’ time and enriches them intellectually, socially, and physically, is over for the year.
Summer is here and I know that figuring out how to occupy your kids’ time outside of school can be a major source of anxiety. But it doesn’t have to be.
I know the idea of letting your kids run free for two months without structure or purpose is simply terrifying. I also know that a lot of you are worried that a couple of months out of their normal routine will jellify your kids’ brain and send them to the back of the intellectual pack once September rolls around. A normal fear—one that I’ve definitely felt myself—but nothing more than urban legend.
Let me tell you what our kids really need. They need time just to be kids. And, scary as it is, the idea of letting kids have open-ended time to play without purpose or watch mindless TV or daydream or play hoops at the park, is one of the best things we can do for them, especially today.
Look, it’s a super-competitive world, I get that. I have two daughters, both of whom I want to see reach their full potential and be successful, productive people. So I’ll be the first to admit that I cringe sometimes when I see them lying on the couch binge-watching Netflix. But that’s because most of us just instinctively associates constant movement and activity with productivity. But that’s just not the case.
Think about it, you only need to look around you to see parents everywhere trucking their kids back and forth between soccer or lacrosse or football or ballet or baseball or field hockey or art classes or violin lessons or French lessons or karate classes or tutoring. It’s a very long list of possibilities nowadays. And only getting longer.
Too many kids today are so hyper-scheduled between school and sports and extracurricular activities that they’re in constant motion from the minute their little eyes open in the morning to the second their frazzled little heads hit the pillow every night.
Just think for a second about what happens to a top when you keep winding it. As long as you keep winding, it keeps going. And when we, the parents, are the ones doing the winding, then our kids are just gonna keep on spinning. And that’s not good. That’s why it’s our job—no, our responsibility—to encourage our kids to spend time just being kids.
As adults, we all know, very intimately, what it feels like to be over-stimulated. It’s a disjointing and overwhelming feeling that more often than not leads to counter-productivity and burnout. So imagine how little kids, with a very limited capacity to express themselves or channel their frustration, deal with being strung out. You already know the answer. They flip a nutty. They implode and act out and shut down and lash out, all at the exact same time. It’s usually an ugly mess.
Remember something, we all have a saturation point. Especially our kids. And we all need time to unwind and process and reflect on the things we do and see and learn every day.
I think it’s easy for us as parents to forget that more than anything, our kids need a little time to roam free range. And that in order to achieve a healthy balance, we often need to learn how to acknowledge when we need to stop and just be.
We need to teach our kids that there is, in fact, a tipping point where our efforts become ineffective and even counter-productive. There comes a time when everyone—especially kids—need to shut down and be a little bit lazy and unproductive.
We’ve all over-committed, at times—whether in work or in school or at home. I know I have. And I’m willing to bet that you’ve spent plenty of time in your life feeling frazzled or scattered or totally ineffective, too. And probably, somewhere along the way, even started to resent what you over-committed yourself to in the first place. Well, kids are no different.
As millions of us parents anticipate the summer ahead, I know that plenty of moms and dads are already stressing about their kids having too much downtime.
But what we often forget is that it’s actually ok if our kids spend some mindless time dock diving or playing Man Hunt or exploring or channel surfing. And it’s ok becasue they’re kids. And that’s the stuff kids are supposed to do. It’s how they unwind. It’s how they decompress. It’s how they grow.
So when your kid is lying upside down on the couch this summer updating their Instagram feed, resist the urge to rip them a new one. Remember that they actually need a little R&R in the very same ways that we do. And remember that even Instagram has value. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I’m sure it’s got some.
Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at itiswhatitiscolumn.wordpress.com. She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is available on Amazon.com and at select Whole Foods Market stores.