My son gets out of school this week, and he’s acting like a POW who just got sprung from a rat-infested prison camp. Meanwhile, I feel as if I am poised on top of the big orange corkscrew slide at our local water park, looking down with that queasy “Here we go” feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I know the ride will be fun. I also know that I will get dizzy and a little nauseous about midway through and will want to get off — and in the end, I’ll just be glad it’s over. Ahhh, summer. On the one hand, it’s a great time of year, with none of the stress of early mornings, school activities and homework to contend with. On the other, it can be a challenge to keep my son from climbing the walls — and for me to stay sane.
Probably the biggest issues are keeping our 9-year-old active and off the TV, Wii or computer (too much screen time, I have seen firsthand, has a negative effect on his mood — and zaps his motivation to do anything else), getting him outside, and keeping him from getting irritable and moody, which is usually the precursor to an argument or meltdown in our house.
We’ve signed him up for a couple day camps and we will arrange play dates with buddies from school, but there will still be long stretches of time where he will be home with me as I work. Here are a few of the things I do to keep him busy that have worked well, and that I’m planning to do again. The bag of tricks is getting a little stale, so believe me, I’m open to hearing any advice or ideas that you have!
1. Limit TV and screen time. Too much TV and video games = cranky, irritable, bored kids who are itching to fight –with you or with siblings. I usually tell my son that he can have a couple hours of screen time a day. He is allowed to choose when he watches, for the most part. He’s into the Crocodile Hunter now and has informed us that he will be “unavailable” each morning from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. while the show is on. When the TV goes off, he has to find something else to do. (And if he can’t find anything, I usually start thinking of chores that he could tackle. This gets him motivated to think of something else to do fast.)
2. Regular chores. We’ve come up with a daily chore list for my son during the summer. He has to make his bed and clean his room, empty the recycling, help me vacuum up once a week, and pick up sticks in the yard, along with a few other things. He gets a small allowance (about $2 a week, when I remember to give it to him!) for doing these things. If we ask him to do a big job, like wash and vacuum the car, we will pay him something extra. Chores are helpful in teaching kids responsibility from an early age — and they also give some structure to their day. It’s also handy to be able to say, “Sure, we’ll go to Target — right after you clean your room.”
3. Find day camps or internships that fit your child’s interests and needs. Changing up the routine a little by choosing some day camps really helps. (And your kid will come home tired! He might even go to bed early!) This is a great way to keep things interesting and give yourself a break, too. Up until now I’ve chosen what my son will do with little push back, but this year he made it plain that he wants to go to nature camp. Many communities have rec camps with prices that vary according to need. There are also camps based on kids’ challenges, such as camps for kids with AD/HD. (If you’re the parent of an AD/HD child, Dr. Bob also gives great advice about how to keep your child with AD/HD busy this summer.) For older kids, part-time jobs are scarce right now, but unpaid internships can be a good solution, especially if your child is thinking about going to college. (A friend of mine had her child start doing internships at 14 with a veterinarian in town, and it was a win-win for everyone.) Another option for your child would be to have him/her create their own business by babysitting, pet sitting or >mowing lawns.
4. Sibling fighting. I clearly remember my mother screaming, “You kids are driving me crazy!!” about once a day every day during the summer when I was growing up. And she was right — my brother and I were at each other’s throats when we were home together. How can parents cope? In her article on this topic, Debbie Pincus recommends that you “Respond with a question rather than a snap judgment when your kids are fighting and accusing each other of ‘starting it.’ So instead of screaming back at your child, stop and take a breath. Say to yourself, “What’s going on here? What’s a better way for me to respond?” To your child, you can say, “Let’s come back to this discussion once everybody calms down. We’re not going there right now because nothing good is going to come out of the conversation when everyone’s upset. When you can come back, we can talk about this in a calm way and work things out.”
(Another great read on this subject is Dr. Joan’s Sibling Fighting, Back Talk and Yelling–It Must Be Summer!)
5. Find a fallback activity you can do together. In the summer, I take a break several afternoons a week during my lunch hour and go with my son to our local park, where there is an algae-covered, mosquito-filled frog pond. It’s not pretty, but he loves it — and I have to admit, we’ve had so much fun there together over the years catching frogs, turtles and fish that I’ve come to love it, too. Even if he’s cranky (or I am) we can both generally shake off the mood at the frog pond and have a good talk (or not say anything at all) as we look for creatures together. What can I say? Some moms bake, some moms play ball — I am an expert at catching creepy crawly things without flinching. (It’s all in the wrist.) The point is, try to find something that you can do together, a fallback activity that you both enjoy. It can lighten the mood and set the stage for real conversations.
6. Mix it up. Make a list together of all the things you’d like to do before school starts. Ours usually includes the local waterpark (Yes, the one with the dizzying corkscrew slide), a trip to a wildlife park, some experiments, a few recipes, some movies and books and a project or two. My friend Julie has a “Summer Jar” that she and her kids fill with activity ideas before summer. Slips of paper in the jar might say, “Experiment: what sinks, what floats?” “Go to a beach/pool you’ve never been to before,” “Go to the library and pick out books on fish,” or “Make homemade pizza.” Each day, they pick out a slip of paper and do whatever is written there. This is a good way to mix it up and keep your kids (and you) from getting bored. I’ve also found that it gives some much-needed structure — and a dash of adventure — to summer.
7. Get your child into a summer reading program. Most local libraries have them, and often they include charts and rewards at the end of the summer if your child reaches a certain goal. Our library has programs for young kids and teens, with cool prizes for the older set like iTunes cards and ear buds. The reason I like reading programs is threefold: 1) Keeps my son reading and prevents “summer slide” 2) Keeps him off the TV 3) Gives more structure to his day.
So here we go — hold your breath and count to ten. It’s summer after all, and along with the lack of structure and routine, there’s also a lot of unscheduled fun to be had with our kids. Please share your ideas here for anything you’re planning to do to keep your kids busy, out of trouble and off each other’s backs this summer!
Elisabeth Wilkins is the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of one reptile-loving son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.