Stephanie dreads the beginning of the summer season. The longer, sunnier days, warmer temperatures and blue skies signal the hardest part of her year is coming up on the horizon.
Who could regard happy, summer weather as a harbinger of dark times to come? “A mom trying to figure out what to do with her three young kids during vacation, that’s who,” Stephanie jokes.
On vacation, the hours stretch out all day, waiting to be filled. And in Stephanie’s small Chicago suburb, she can try only so many activities before repeating herself — and risk boring the kids.
“At some point, the kids always whine that there’s nothing to do, and honestly, at some point I can’t think of anything more,” she says. “There’s only so many times we can go to the pool or the Y for classes. I’m used to them being at school for six, seven hours a day now — and using that time to do my own work. So when summer comes, there’s suddenly many more hours to fill.”
Stephanie is tempted to give into the kids’ desires and let them play on their iPads all day. “They want to play games, watch Netflix, just tool around on the Internet,” Stephanie says.
But Stephanie is a conscientious parent, and wants her kids’ vacations to be as screen-free as possible. Yet the question remains: how exactly will she keep her kids busy all summer long, without leaning on the “electronic babysitters” that tempt parents everywhere?
Stephanie knows she seems neurotic. “I know my kids,” she says. “The biggest conflicts we have are over chores and electronics. The idea of mentally and emotionally wrestling them all day over playing on the iPad already exhausts me.”
Stephanie plans for the kids’ vacation well before school lets out for the year. She found some day camps for her daughter Stella, who plays soccer. She signed up her other daughter Elise for equestrian camp, and her youngest son Evan is scheduled for outdoor activities on a local farm. She also blocked off a week for a family vacation to North Carolina in August.
But “camps are expensive and can be logistically complicated,” Stephanie says. “And they’re for limited amounts of time. I still looked at the family calendar and saw huge blocks of time that still needed to accounted for — time that I knew they’d be clamoring for their iPads and Nintendo DS and everything else.”
She has a list of screen-free activities she and her kids can do in lieu of device time. She has many arts and crafts ideas, such as fingerpainting or painting with sponges. They can strip off, repaint and decorate old chairs and small tables. She discovered a recipe for homemade Play-Doh, as well as other simple meal recipes she and her kids could try together.
Since her kids loved to see the insides of machines, Stephanie trolled their attic for old devices and appliances they could take apart.
They also have a list of local markets, shops, museums and parks. She also stocked up on board games and sports equipment like balls and badminton.
Though she’s well-prepared, Stephanie still can’t stave off the stress surrounding the kids’ vacation time.
“I look at my list and my calendar and I’m already exhausted just thinking about it,” she says. “I feel guilty because I feel like I should cherish all this time spent with my kids. But I also know I have work to do as well, not to mention the house and yard things — and how am I going to find the time and energy to do everything if I also have to be the kids’ cruise director all the time? It’s just too much.”
On Facebook, Stephanie canvassed how other parents were approaching summer vacation for their kids. One parent was concerned about “summer brain drain” and planned to assign their kids lessons over the three months so they wouldn’t forget what they learned the year before. Another parent had worked with her mom group to coordinate a series of day trips.
These ideas are creative, but still daunt Stephanie. “They all sound pretty intense,” she says. “And honestly, not too many of them sound fun. Isn’t fun the point of summer vacation on some level? Am I a bad parent for thinking this?”
It’s the ultimate paradox for some parents — the most relaxing time of the year for kids is often the most stressful and disruptive for their adult caretakers.
Part of this is related to higher expectations put upon parents now. Many expect parents to be more intensely involved with their kids — and generally parents now do spend much more time with their children now than in the 1960s, according to a 2013 Pew study. But traditional social supports for parents — such as proximity to extended family — has actually decreased, making parenting an exhausting task.
Stephanie’s memories of her own vacation look very different from the way kids vacation now. “Back in my day, we would just go outside all day and play in the neighborhood from morning to dinnertime,” she says. “We’d play sports, games, occasionally get a ride to the community pool or water park. Go to a park, or just hang out at someone’s house, watching TV or playing Nintendo.”
Now, though, kids are much less inclined to play outside now, often to their detriment. Stephanie’s kids enjoy the outdoors, but they get bored with it quickly, according to her.
“There’s just no one else for them to play with,” she says. “Most of the other neighborhood kids don’t play together as much as my generation did.”
You can’t let your kids roam and explore now, according to Stephanie.
“The other moms give you a hard time or judge you if you’re hands off with your children. You have to now ferry them to classes or activities or day camp,” she says. “Everything they do has to ‘enrich’ them in some way. And if you don’t do this, you’re judged as a bad parent.”
With such social pressure bearing down on parents — not to mention their kids’ whines of “I’m bored!” — it’s very easy to give into the temptation of the iPad babysitter. It’s not a stretch to correlate the rise of helicopter parenting with an equal rise in screen time for kids. How else do exhausted parents get a moment’s break, especially with kids used to having every block of time accounted for by someone else?
“It’s sad, but honestly, if I need an hour’s peace, that’s the real surefire way of getting it,” Stephanie says. “That, or a movie maybe, or a video game.”
But some parents are fighting against the intense parenting pressure, embracing so-called “free range” approach to parenting.
Free-range parenting — as opposed to so-called helicopter parenting — focuses on encouraging kids’ self-sufficiency and independence. A free-range parent, for example, would allow their child to walk home from school on their own once they knew the route well and could be trusted to follow basic safety procedures.
But free-range parents sometimes go against the expectations of society. And sometimes they can pay for their nonconformity. Take the high-profile case of Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, Maryland parents who let their young children walk home by themselves from a nearby park.
Though the children did not seem in immediate danger, another adult called Child Protective Services, and the Meitivs were arrested by police.
The resulting flak ignited a debate over parenting styles in general. Were free-range parents like the Meitivs neglecting their children, or were the people who called CPS nosy and judgmental?
After the Meitivs faced another CPS investigation after letting their children walk home again, Maryland officials clarified their policy and will not investigate CPS incidents of children walking or playing unsupervised outside unless they were harmed or face immediate danger, according to the Washington Post.
Stephanie says that free-range parenting isn’t an option for her. “I’d get a million parents calling me up to take me to task, and a million others talking smack behind my back,” she says. “People are way too judgmental in my neighborhood. It’s too bad, because I really would like my kids to be able to be free in their own neighborhood without reprisal or judgment.”
And while neighborhoods like Stephanie’s may have involved intensive parents, they aren’t necessarily a strong community.
“When I was young, neighbors watched out for one another in terms of kids,” Stephanie says. “It also wasn’t out of place to be reprimanded by a neighbor, or simply just another adult. Now if you do that, it’s like, ‘Leave my special snowflake alone!’ It’s more like every parent for themselves.”
If helicopter parenting is emotionally unsustainable and free-range options socially risky, what else can Stephanie do? The most radical suggestion of all is the most counter-intuitive: many psychologists suggest simply letting the kids be bored, and letting them work out for themselves how to occupy their time.
Boredom can often stimulate creativity, as well as provide opportunities for children to explore their interests and identities without the watchful eye of parental pressure. The task of figuring how to occupy themselves helps kids develop creativity, problem-solving, autonomy and motivation, according to Psychology Today.
Vacation, of course, is a perfect time for kids to work through boredom. The problem for intensive parents like Stephanie, though, is that they’ve planned, scheduled and “enriched” their children so much that, when faced with the dilemma of finding something to do for a few hours, their sons and daughters have no idea where to even begin.
Stephanie’s helicopter approach to summer vacation worked, at least for the first month. Her kids enjoyed the activities she planned, and together the family created some fun summer memories, at least for the kids.
Stephanie herself began to stress out. “At the end of our busy days, I just kept trying to blast through my own to-do list and my own projects and work — and I was just too exhausted,” she says.
About halfway through vacation — once Stephanie had burned through her ideas — the old conflicts began to creep in. “The kids began to get more bored and demanding,” she says. “They expected me to entertain and plan for them. But by that point, I felt burned out, not to mention stressed out that I was falling behind work.”
Enter the electronic babysitters. For a few days, Stephanie gave in and simply handed over to her kids the TV remote control, the iPad and the game controllers as she caught up on work.
“I felt so guilty, so full of self-loathing,” she said. “I know how bad too much screen time can be, and yet I just had so much to do and catch up on.”
After she caught up on work, Stephanie resolved to try something new, at least until the family vacation in a few weeks.
“I knew the overly involved, helicopterish camp director role I was playing wasn’t sustainable for me and my family,” she says. “So I needed to set off to find my own way.”
Stephanie, of course, had no idea what that approach would be. She was sorting through her kids’ library of books, though, when she stumbled across something that gave her an idea.
“It was a copy of ‘Little Women,'” she says, referencing the Victorian children’s literature classic by Louisa May Alcott, the story of four sisters growing up together in post-Civil War-era Massachusetts. “There were a few chapters on how the March sisters spent their summer vacations that gave me a glimmer of a plan. Each of the sisters had a garden for the summer, and a project, something to work on that they chose themselves.”
Stephanie laid down the gauntlet at a family meeting. She told her kids that vacation was halfway through, and it would be weeks until their family vacation — and they needed something to show for that time.
She wanted them to learn something new or create something or otherwise set some kind of goal for themselves — something that didn’t involve the passive use of a device — and then spend the rest of the summer working towards it. She would sit down with her kids and work out milestones, as well as rewards for reaching them. She would give them the rest of the week to think it over.
Stephanie’s kids groaned about the idea at first, wondering how it would be different from school. “I then explained that unlike school, these were things that they wanted to do, and they wouldn’t be graded,” Stephanie says.
A bit more reassured, the kids proposed some ideas, though they all reflected a tech-oriented bent at first. Stella wanted to build a city in Minecraft, but Stephanie, who dreaded the idea of her daughter being on a computer or Xbox all day, offered the idea of Legos instead.
Elise wanted to learn to build games, but Stephanie proposed instead that she make her own board game, arguing that game designers first learn their craft by making paper-based games to begin with.
Evan, who liked art apps on the iPad, offered to draw an entire series of animals — which Stephanie okayed for paper and crayon.
Once their projects were set and milestones and rewards figured out, the kids attacked their goals for the rest of the summer.
“At first it felt a little forced, and I had to remind them to go work on their projects for an afternoon,” Stephanie said. “We still did activities together as a family, going out and seeing movies and what have you. But when the kids began to whine about being bored, I could now just say they could work on their project instead.”
As the kids made headway towards their goal — and hit some rewards along the way — they soon didn’t need as many reminders. They found themselves caught up in their own self-generated momentum, and grew excited for the next reward, as well as meeting the challenges they chose for themselves.
“I think the key was letting them feel they had some choice in the matter of what they wanted to do,” Stephanie says. “It was fun for them to explore their interests and enthusiasms.”
As summer wound down and the final family vacation approached — and then the new school year not long after — Stephanie’s children actually grew sad. Not just because vacation was ending, but that their projects were coming to a close.
“We should’ve done this earlier,” Stephanie’s daughter Stella told her. “We could have done so much more with a whole summer!”
“I was definitely pleased when I heard that,” Stephanie says. “Next summer we’ll make sure to do this from the beginning.” ♦