Summer vacation has arrived, and so have calls to the support line from parents who are pulling their hair out about their kids now that school is out. Why is the end of school an invitation for kids to cause trouble—with siblings, friends and parents?
Kids often see the summer months as a time to do whatever they please, with no responsibilities or academic pressures. Some kids expect an endless range of fun activities—and besides that, they’re hanging out with friends, sleeping until noon, and might see an easing of the rules as their reward for making it through another school year. Your child might be imagining a summer that reality can rarely deliver, which sets them up to be let down. The change in routine alone can be sufficient to throw some kids off-kilter. When you combine these factors—expectations and a change in schedule—with an increase in family togetherness (or claustrophobia, depending on how you look at it), it’s only a matter of time before the level of conflict rises in your home.
Is it best to have some kind of structure in place during the summer? How do you balance it with free time?
"When you combine these factors—expectations and a change in schedule—with an increase in family togetherness...it’s only a matter of time before the level of conflict rises in your home."
Having some amount of structure in the summer is helpful for most families. Determining how much structure to put into place will depend on the individual needs of your children. Some kids typically do well with less structure and are able to spend their time engaging in acceptable ways, but many others don’t. If your children tend to act out and get into trouble if left to their own devices, then planning out a detailed summer schedule of activities might be the solution. It requires some work up front, but it can prevent many problems from arising along the way. Work with your child to create a list of activities that they are interested in doing. Some might involve weekly lessons and practice times, while others are more flexible. Schedule the morning, midday, and evening routine, including mealtimes, designated chore time, activities and free time. Post the schedule in a spot where family members can easily reference it. This may sound too rigid for your child. But look at it this way: if the summer has begun, and your child is already bored, isn’t helping out at home and is causing trouble with siblings and friends, consider setting up a structure that is similar to what they’re used to at school. At school, there are set times for different subjects and activities. James Lehman’s opinion is that planning out a schedule for your child at home will help manage his behavior. You can avoid power struggles by deferring to the schedule when your child needs help staying on-task. The intention is not to be overly strict or inflexible, but rather to help teach children how to manage their time effectively.
Ideally, there should be a mix of both planned activities and down time. The specifics of what this will look like will depend on the age and needs of your kids. However, here is an example of a scheduled summer day for a 5 to 12 year old child:
7:30am- Wake up, dress, breakfast
9:00am- Outdoor play/exercise (weather permitting) around the house or at local playground
10:30am- Summer Reading Program (Schools and libraries often have these set up for parents.)
1:00pm- Swim lessons
3:00pm- Chore time
4:00pm- Free time at home
6:30pm- Night-time routine- bathing, tidying up, etc.
7:30pm- Quiet activities- reading, drawing, and listening to music (whatever helps your kids wind down.)
Setting up a summer schedule for your teenager will look a bit different. The hope is that by the time kids reach their teen years, they will be more capable of managing their time, but many will need a loose outline of daily expectations. One significant difference in a teen’s schedule will be the possible addition of employment or volunteer work. It is completely reasonable to expect that your teen ventures into the working world or volunteers his time on a part-time basis. Below is an example of a scheduled summer day for your teen:
9:00am- Out of bed, breakfast, shower, dress, etc.
10:30am- Chore time
11:30am- Free time at home
1pm- Attend part-time job or volunteer position
4pm- Free time at home
5:30pm- Dinner with family
6:30pm- Free time to socialize with peers
10pm weekdays- Curfew
Again, these are just examples of structured and balanced summer schedules—you will figure out what works for you. The key point is that many parents find that it creates more stress for the whole family when kids are over-booked. When there is too much on a child’s plate, it will likely result in resistance and power struggles. Build in free time to the schedule in amounts that will give your child time to slow down, relax, or accept a last minute invitation to spend time with a friend. You may have to experiment with how much free time will be the right amount—because having too much or too little both carry problems. Ultimately, making the transition into summer vacation can be a smooth and pleasant one, if you take the needs of your family into consideration and come up with a game plan.
Having structure in the summer can also help kids make a more seamless transition back into school come fall. They will already be accustomed to meeting the demands of a schedule (and getting up in the morning), whereas if no summer structure was in place, the school routine could be a shock to their systems once the new semester rolls around again.
Tips on introducing a summer structure in your home:
Introducing a new way of doing things is often met with resistance, so be ready for your kids to protest the implementation of a summer schedule. Use the example of last summer (or this one if it is already underway and going poorly) to tell your children that you want things to go differently. You could say, “Remember last summer when you were bored and arguing with each other all the time? Having a schedule can help make this summer go more smoothly.” Stay very positive about the new plan and allow your child to fill in some of the daily activities so that they can contribute and therefore, be more on-board with this change. The introduction of a summer schedule should be planned out ahead of time and discussed in a family meeting—avoid the temptation to announce it in the heat of the moment when your kids are acting out. This will only make it seem like a punishment.
Once you have rolled out the new schedule, expect your kids to take a little time to adjust, but do your best to stick to it consistently. This will create the most benefit for the family. That being said, it’s also okay to occasionally alter the agenda to accommodate special plans or catch up on rest if it is needed. One of the key points to remember is that you want your child to have time to relax over the summer without losing all sense of routine. You’ll be surprised at how holding on to a reasonable structure in the summer will give him that extra help so he can transition smoothly when the new school year rolls around in the fall.