Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The end of August is near and we need to plan activities for our two boys, ages 11 and 7. Both have had a full summer of sports, arts and science camps. In past years, we’ve gone camping as a family. The first three days were an endless string of complaints (No TV? No video games? No sleeping in?). By the time they finally adjusted, we had only two days left. The week before school was a mad dash to get ready.
This year we can’t take off that much time (we’re reluctant anyway) and school starts earlier. We are looking at two weeks with no program at all. Part of me feels like the kids deserve downtime and “vegging out,” but another worries they’ll drive each other (and us) crazy or spend all their time glued to screens. What’s a reasonable balance? How do we make the last two weeks of August a treat rather than a torture? — Worried in Orinda
Dear Worried: The end-of-summer challenge is on many parents’ minds right now. For parents who need to work full schedules, child care and supervision are the main issues. Many also puzzle at times like this over how much “vegging out” and screen time to allow and how to entertain bored and antsy kids.
I am of the school that believes most kids are overscheduled, overstressed, overstimulated by screens and in overly competitive environments. During the school year, they are wrung dry by demanding schoolwork, too much homework, sports, music lessons, arts activities and time-pressured family routines. Two weeks of downtime can be a great blessing. And, if you manage it right, it will open up time for free play and creativity that get shut out by most kids’ excessive results-oriented activities.
In fact, I would suggest that no structured activities and very limited screen time would be a great gift. It will create an opportunity for your boys to generate ideas for engagement, as well as learn to be alone with their feelings and thoughts. These experiences are disappearing from our kids’ (and our own) lives. I hate to sound like a Luddite, but I believe total immersion in information and constant communication are impoverishing kids’ inner lives and dismantling the magic of play.
But enough of my preaching. I suggest you set the general parameters and let your children exercise maximum autonomy managing their time, using this practical guide.
Declare the first week “veg-out time” and let them do as close to nothing as possible. Don’t suggest or provide activities or entertainment, but encourage (and assist if needed) anything they come up with relying only on their own resources.
Take the total amount of daily screen time you allow during the school year and double it, multiplying by the number of days ahead. That’s the number of hours in their “screen-time bank.” If they want to use their time to binge on TV and video games for the first days, let them.
If you are very active and accomplishment-oriented, it may be hard to tolerate your kids sitting around doing nothing. Try this graduated schedule, with a good dose of humor: On day one, your kids need not lift a finger; on day two, they should do only what requires two fingers; day three, whatever can be done with one hand; day four, with two hands; day five, with hands and one foot, etc. You get the idea. I bet you anything that by day four, your kids will be begging you to let them do more, even unload the dishwasher.
If in the second week your kids seem to have had enough downtime, make a plan together for activities that focus on outdoor and imaginative play, or projects around the house or garden.
Finally, if you can manage to have two days of downtime yourself during this period, with help from friends/family/babysitters, it will be a great boon to you and the whole family.