The relaxed parent's guide to summer vacation

10 ways to avoid panicking over your suddenly freewheeling kids

Summertime brings up nostalgic childhood images of kids taking over the street with a stickball game, or chasing butterflies in the afternoon heat. But is that the life you're living? Was it ever?

My Minimalist Parenting co-author Christine and I recently talked about what to do with the kids during the summer on NPR's Tell Me More, specifically, how to tone down the summer overscheduling that seems to be rampant. One listener responded that, as a working parent, scheduling back-to-back camps is a childcare necessity. She'd love more free time in the summer, but it's just not realistic. She concluded, not unkindly: "This isn't the '50s anymore."

Indeed it isn't. To many parents, the prospect of bored kids and an XBox beckoning from the basement is enough to make a summer full of planned activities seem like the most attractive option.

But I would argue that summertime doesn't have to be either-or. There's a sweet spot between "planned" and "free-range." Sure, it looks different for each family based on childcare needs, budgets, ages and number of kids, and interests. But it's there. Here's how to find yours:

1. Start with your family's unique baseline of needs.

Forget the Norman Rockwell image of summer.

• How much childcare coverage do you need?

• How much money can you spare for summer camps and classes (and/or babysitting)?

• Are you traveling this summer? When?

• What does an ideal summer look like for your family, and how might you get as close to that as possible without draining your bank account or going crazy?

2. Brainstorm ideas and goals with your kids.
Once you've clarified your family's summer parameters, open the discussion up to the kids. What do they want to do this summer? Learn a sport? Fly a kite? Play video games? Hear them out. Their ideas may not all be realistic, but the conversation will give you insight into their hopes for the summer, and can serve as a jumping off point for filling in the calendar.

For example, my 9-year-old daughter told me that her No. 1 priority for this summer is swimming. I made a note in my to-do list to check into summer-long passes at the local pool — something I had never considered before.

3. Mine your community for inexpensive and free activities.
The local paper often has a "summer round-up" in its lifestyle or entertainment section listing free or low-cost events, festivals, and getaways. Pore over it with your calendar in hand, and plug in every activity that seems like it might be fun.

I file these items in a "Possibilities" calendar, which I keep hidden in my smartphone calendar day-to-day. When free time pops up, I reveal the calendar to see what's going on at that time.

4. Print and share your calendar.
I print a copy of the summer calendar so that it's visible to the rest of my family, too. The sooner you can distance yourself from the role of "schedule gatekeeper," the better. The idea is both to notify everyone about days and weeks that are spoken for by camps, travel, and other plans, and to get the kids thinking about entertaining themselves. Even young kids can look on the calendar or a list of summer activities and form an opinion. "How about the zoo?" is so much easier to work with (and empowering for kids) than, "Now what are we gonna do?"

5. Embrace a (flexible) routine.
Maintaining a little routine helps everyone feel vital and productive, and keeps summer from slipping away in a haze of oversleeping and wondering how to occupy your time. Regular wake-up times, daily chores, and even weekly "rhythms" ("Thursday is hike day! Where should we go?") can help summer feel flexible yet full.

6. Think of chores and responsibilities as 'summer school.'
Without the homework and hectic schedule of the school year, kids have more time and mental space for practical learning. Keep kids engaged with household chores (making beds, clearing and washing dishes, laundry), outdoor jobs (lawn mowing, weeding, washing the car) and practical skills (handling pocket money, learning to navigate the neighborhood on foot or by bike).

If your kids are young, or don't have any household responsibilities, summer is a good time to start with something small.

7. Stock the house with raw materials.

• Get a cheap badminton set, a Frisbee, and a few tennis balls for juggling and playing catch.

• Take advantage of library reading programs, and keep a changing array of books on the coffee table.

• Place tempting objects (art supplies, tools) throughout the house to give kids a chance to explore and use them on their own.

• Get a few containers of frozen lemonade concentrate, a pitcher, and a card table, and let your kids staff a lemonade stand. A little pocket money always makes summer more interesting.

• Plant a cherry tomato plant in a pot, and let the kids water it and watch it grow.

8. Challenge the fear of 'brain drain.'
Kids have been focused on academic learning all year, so summer is the perfect time for experiential learning. Use summer class time to let kids to be more physically active and free-form than their regular school schedules might allow.

If your child has specific academic skills that need bolstering, rather than classes and drills, see if you can change it up. Struggling readers come alive during the summer with a wider choice of reading material, a less structured approach, and, simply, more time.

9. Challenge the fear of boredom.
Your kids' boredom is irritating, not life-threatening. Don't be afraid of it. If you're a working parent and your kids need summer supervision, consider hiring a babysitter for part of the summer rather than filling the weeks with pre-programmed activity. Doing so opens up space and possibility that's just not available during the school year, and gives kids more practice learning to entertain themselves.

10. Let go of the guilt.
Don't worry if you don't find the perfect balance, or your kids spend a week playing video games, or you can't swing or afford the awesome trip/homemade crafts/nifty camp. As long as your kids are clothed, fed, safe, and loved, they're good. Try to let go of how you think summer should look, then head out for an ice cream and savor how sweet these moments are.


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