When it comes to parenting, nothing is simple, and everything has pros and cons (and so many layers of complicated choices and self-doubt). It’s enough to make your head spin.
And that includes summer plans.
Parents coast to coast are debating what kids should do over summer break. Do their kids need a break? Or do they need a job? Do they need freedom or to catch up on their studies?
One of the best parenting advice is not to take advice from anyone. But then again, information is the glue that keeps parents sane and kids alive, so let’s discuss the topic of summer break — the million-dollar debate of “should we let our kids do whatever they want over the summer?”
How much freedom is too much freedom when summer strikes? Do kids need structure or a break? The short answer is yes and no, to all of it. They need freedom, and they need structure. They need a break, and they also need boundaries.
Somewhere in between is probably the right balance for you.
Consider the facts:
Thanks to a global pandemic, school shooting after school shooting, human rights violations, and war in Ukraine, plus endless other events stripping our kids of their innocence and joy, our children are struggling.
Blame the isolation from the pandemic or the constant stream of devastating events flooding their news cycle, but kids are suffering from a mental health perspective.
According to 2021 data from the CDC, 37 percent of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
For younger children, the struggles were similar.
A 2020 survey facilitated by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago found that 71 percent of parents surveyed said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health. Even more disturbing, mental health-related emergency room visits increased by 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent for those ages 12 to 17 in 2020 compared to 2019.
Years of virtual learning, loss, fear, isolation, hate crimes, and school shootings have certainly taken a toll on kids (and parents).
So finally, summer is here, which means a break from school, over-scheduled commitments, and structure. But should we let our kids truly have a break and do whatever they want? Or would they benefit from some structure during the summer months?
Experts agree it really depends on the child, and balance is the real solution.
The Importance of Summer Play
It’s undeniable that many children suffered a learning loss during the lockdown and are potentially behind on their academic plans. But where they really suffered during COVID-19 was not only with their learning skills but with their well-being.
Many experts believe that children need to use the summer months to catch up with friends and have adventures, not catch up on schoolwork. “Children need time to reconnect and play with their friends, they need to be reminded how good it feels to be outdoors after so long inside, and they need to get physically active again,” argues Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at the University of Reading.
Kids need to romp around in the grass, stare at the clouds, play in muddy puddles and laugh with their friends. They need to sleep late, eat ice cream on hot days, and remember how fun it is just to feel free and in fresh air.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain.”
Think of your social and emotional skills like a muscle. Like the muscles you use for sports, you need to practice, build strength, and allow recovery for maximum performance.
The same applies to your social-emotional skills.
The pandemic has been the psychological workout of a lifetime for many kids and teens, argues psychologist Lisa Damour. For kids “to put that workout to use, they need time for recovery so that they can enjoy increased emotional resilience by fall,” she told the New York Times. “Don’t underestimate the value of whatever they turn to — even if it’s “just hanging out” — as they go through the quiet work of rebuilding themselves,” she explains.
Play is essential for not only developmental skills but also for happiness.
But then again, experts stress that kids also need boundaries, and they thrive with structured scenarios.
Kids Thrive with Structure, Even in the Summer
Just like play is important and freedom is essential, so is structure. Kids need boundaries, rules, and routines.
According to Nancy Darling, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology at Oberlin College, the two things that children and adolescents need now, more than ever, are 1) unconditional love and 2) structure. Especially after several years of throwing rules and responsibilities (and dinner times and dress and conduct codes) out the window, the structure will help kids feel safe.
“When things are stable and predictable, loosening up can be great. When you’re not sure what you can count on, what kids want is structure,” explains Darling to Psychology Today.
“Structure and stability you can count on feeling good. Simple, flexible rules. A clear schedule. Regular mealtimes. Ritual — getting dressed in the morning, doing chores and feeding the dog, a story at bedtime.”
These are all important for children and teens, especially during times of chaos and uncertainty.
Again, parenting, especially parenting today, is all about balance.
Yes, structure and routine are essential. Kids want boundaries. They long for rules and guidance. But as we’ve seen, they also desperately need to relax, recover, reflect, and just be kids.
For many people, a perfect solution that offers this summer balance is camp. The benefits of summer camp, whether day camp, specialty camp, or sleep away camp, are endless.
According to Elizabeth Reichert, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at Stanford Children’s Health, being in nature and being active are good for boosting kids’ moods and developing coping strategies and resilience.
“There are opportunities to connect with peers in a non-academic setting, and those opportunities are rich for social skill development, like practicing how to get along with a new peer group, learning how to ask for help, etc.,” Reichert explains. It’s also an opportunity to build trusted relationships with adults and role models who are not your parents – such as counselors, big sisters/brothers, CITs, camp directors, and coaches.
Considering how much the pandemic has impacted social and emotional development, opportunities to grow socially in a safe space, such as camp, are needed more than ever.
At camp, kids are “required to resolve issues without their parents supplying the solution. This sharpening of problem-solving skills leads to an increase in self-confidence that will continue long after camp ends,” Jessica Harrison, LPC, tells VeryWellMind.
Bottom line where summer and kids are concerned: find a way to strike some compromise between the extremes. Parents and kids need to understand that there will be some non-negotiables — chores, summer jobs, bedtimes, reading, etc. But those required activities can be built into a recovery-based and play-based summer. Let your kids have some say in their plans.
Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of the New York Times’s best-seller “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood,” explains that it’s important to let kids and teens feel like they have some say in how their time is spent during the summer.
If you push them too hard to focus on something they are not interested in, it could be the opposite of what you hope. Summer activities should not be “in an anxious attempt to compensate for a stripped-down school year,” but instead should help kids return to school in the fall feeling rejuvenated and excited,” she told the Times.
Summer is about growth, fun, recovery, and maturity. And those things can all be achieved with a combination of freedom, joy, structure, and purpose.