Kids and Summer Activities

I was recently interviewed on a parenting radio show and thought that, with summer around the corner, the topic of kids and summer activities seemed timely.

1. What ultimately is the goal a parent should have in mind when they select/offer ideas to their children of what to do this summer?

Parents should think about what they want their children to get out of their summer. I recommend anything that fosters kids’ physical, intellectual, social, spiritual, environmental, cultural, and artistic development. In other words, what are the experiences that will further children’s greater understanding of themselves and the world in which they live.

Also, parents should focus on summer activities that encourage certain values that parents want to instill in their children, for example, hard work, compassion, or learning about other cultures. If children are into sports, the arts, or another specialized area, activity-specific camps or other experiences devoted to these are a great way to allow them to enjoy themselves and help them improve and strive toward their goals.

Of course, having some summer activities that are just plain fun is important too.

2. What summer activities should parents avoid for their children?

Too many parents these days worry too much about their children’s futures. So they send their kids to summer academic camps (e.g., math or computer camp) or internships (e.g., law firms, hospitals, businesses) that they think will better prepare them for college or a career. I think this is just another example of anxious parents trying to fast forward their intellectual and educational development, burnish their kids’ “resume,” or force them down a career path not of their choosing. Such experiences are often joyless to kids (unless they have a passion for it) and can actually hamper their educational pursuits by turning them off to academics. And there will be plenty of time for kids to find a career path once they get to college.

3. What role does our popular culture play in these decisions?

Parents feel a lot of pressure these days to “keep up with the Joneses,” meaning they feel like if they’re not doing what the Joneses are doing, then they will be viewed as bad parents. My advice is to “make the Joneses jealous.” While the Joneses are doing what everyone else is doing (unhappily, I might add), you can be doing what your family wants to do. The ability to make this decision to buck the system comes from thinking deliberately about your family’s values and interests and making conscious choices based on those priorities.

4. What specific ideas can you offer parents to do with their 13-18 year olds this summer?

Summer jobs are one of the most powerful experiences teenagers can have. I think manual labor or mundane labor is especially good learning experience for teens, particularly in the privileged and insulated world in which many kids are raised these days. I worked as a carpenter all through high school and college. It showed me the value of hard work, the direct relationship between earning a wage and producing something, and how most people in America work. Plus, I learned a set of practical (i.e., do-it-yourself) skills that I use to this day. My wife worked summers in a mall cookie shop. She benefited from many of the lessons that I learned.

Camp counselor is a great summer job because it teaches kids leadership skills and the ability to teach others. Working with disadvantaged kids can also be an eye-opening experience because it exposes privileged children to people and a world that they wouldn’t see otherwise.

Summers are also a great time to get kids involved in household responsibilities. They should be assigned chores that contribute to the upkeep and functioning of the house. Painting a room, cleaning out the garage, or being in charge of recycling are all great ways to teach kids responsibility and get the house into shape.

If you have a backyard, planting a vegetable garden is another wonderful experience for kids. They can learn about agriculture and healthy eating, and they can get their hands dirty too (always a fun and healthy thing for kids to do). Seeing the fruits of their labor (no pun intended) can be a source of great satisfaction and perhaps trigger a lifelong passion for gardening.

Family activities should also be included summer plans. Family outings are a great way for you to connect with and strengthen your relationship with their kids and do fun things together. The best summer family activities are those in which parents and children share a new and unique experience, visit a place totally unfamiliar to everyone, or do something that requires a family to interact in different ways. For example, one family I know spent two weeks helping to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. Another family spent a week camping the mountains.

5. What role does boredom play in summer activities? Does boredom have any value?

Boredom happens when kids have too much free time on their hands. And summers, when kids aren’t in school and may not have as much structure in their days, are a potential breeding ground for boredom.

Boredom can be a dangerous thing because, when children have nothing to do, mischief (or worse) is always a great way to make life exciting. Remember the saying, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground?

Boredom can also be a great tool for development if it’s handled properly. Too often these days, when kids get bored, parents give them something to entertain them, such as put them in front of a TV or computer or send them to the mall. But boredom can encourage creativity and self-initiative. When kids tell their parents they are bored, the parents should say, “So, what are you going to do about it?” Parents can offer activities that are healthy, such as organizing informal soccer games, going to parks and museums, or doing chores around the house (that will get kids motivated to find something to do for themselves!).

At the same time, I do think a part of summer should be devoted to down time, meaning just hanging out at home and taking it easy (but that doesn’t mean sitting in front of a screen for easy entertainment). Kids need time to rest and recharge. So much of kids’ lives these days are programmed and go, go, go. But this time should not comprise the bulk of the summer, but rather be a short period, perhaps a week, before school begins.

6. How does a parent address the fact if a child does NOT want to do, attend or volunteer at a certain activity?

I have a saying, “Doing nothing is not an option.” Kids have to do something with their summers. You can give your kids some options from which they must choose, including some form of work. But I believe that kids should be forced to do something.

One family I know has a rule: one thing the parents want the kids to do and one thing the kids want to do. This rule amounts to a win-win for parents and kids.

7. Is there anything else you would like to add regarding this subject?

I think it’s reasonable for parents to be a little bit “selfish” in deciding the summer activities in which their children participate. For example, when parents choose to send their children to sleep-away camp, that gives them the opportunity to have some husband-and-wife time alone to travel or pursue interests that they might not otherwise be able to do. This solo time can be healthy for the individual spouses and for marriage. And, as we all know, happy parents and healthy marriages make for happy and healthy marriages.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology, has work with young people, parents, and educators for more than 27 years. Jim is the author of 14 books, four of which are parenting books. Jim has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Fox News Channel, ABC’s World News This Weekend, and the major television network affiliates around the country. He has participated in many radio shows. Dr. Taylor has been an expert source for articles that have appeared in The London Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Outside, Men’s Health, and many other newspapers and magazines. Jim lives north of San Francisco with his wife, Sarah, and his daughters, Catie and Gracie. To learn more, visit