School is out! The vision of summer vacation for many parents and children is that of a time of reduced stress. No more battles over homework, no more struggles with academic performance, problems in the classroom, or getting projects done (Was it the child or the parent who did the work?). But summer brings its own stresses. For working parents, it requires making arrangements for the children to be taken care of and the added expenses that go with that. For some children, the loss of structure and predictability to their lives is unsettling. Many children will be facing new experiences such as the first time at day or overnight camp or attending a new program. The swimming class, sailing program, computer class, art class, all of which sounded interesting when discussed last spring, can be a little scary meeting when it’s time to go.
To help insure that these summer situations for pre-school and school age children have a better chance for success (we’ll deal with teens in a moment), keep certain things in the forefront. Parents should be open with staff about potential behavioral issues. Too often parents are afraid that to forewarn staff is to set their child up to be labeled as a “problem” before anything happens. But if your child is slow to warm up, needs activities to be broken down into small steps, requires extra support or encouragement from adults, has difficulties with transitions, is easily frustrated, or is afraid of water, staff needs to have strategies in place to minimize problems. Tell them what works at home or in school.
I’m reminded of two situations in recent years, both involving slightly hyper and disorganized 7-year-old boys. Each was attending a new day camp. One set of parents didn’t want to “label” their child and hoped that the active nature of the camp program would not require any special strategies. Unfortunately, the child had a problem with the first instructional swim class, the staff person used a confrontational approach that only made the child more anxious and upset, and the resulting blow-up made the child strongly resistant to returning. Of course, it also made the camp resistant to having him return! The other family explained the child’s needs ahead of time. They discussed strategies that worked (clear, firm options and consequences and not getting drawn into negotiating or using threats). The parents were prepared to have the child sent home (if his behavior became unacceptable) during the first couple of days because in the past that resulted in the child being able to accept the authority of the new adults. This is exactly what happened and the rest of the camp experience went very smoothly.
Sometimes a program turns out to be very different than expected or the child’s reaction is much more negative than expected. Parents then struggle with the question of whether or not to force the child to continue. The first step is to understand the child’s distress. Don’t negate or minimize it because you have no other place for the child to be or there’s no refund. Once you have some insight into the problem (you may need to go and observe as did a parent last summer who discovered that it did look boring), meet with staff and see if there is a way to resolve the child’s distress. If the program is not living up to its promises, insist on a refund. My experience is that many programs end up last minute openings. Thus, you may be able to find an alternative that works better. The key, especially with young children, is not to force a child to endure a bad experience because it will only make it harder in the future to get the child to try new things. The worry that you might be teaching a child not to honor a commitment is overstated, especially with younger children.
With teenagers, summer can present a number of challenges: Camp versus work; how many hours of work versus free time; and, typically the biggest source of conflict, summer curfews. For those early teen years when a child may feel too old to go to camp but is not old enough for most jobs, the child is often insisting on having a lot of free time and the parent, understandably, is concerned about the potential for trouble. The decision needs to take into account the child’s personality (some children do well with free time — they have interests and can create their own structure) and past behavior (does the child actually have a history of getting into serious trouble or is this more the parents’ anxiety), and the presence of friends (sometimes there’s no one around). Usually, I push for a compromise. Some structure (break up the summer with a couple of one week activities) and some open time. See how the child handles it. After all, part of raising children is to create an environment in which they can learn about themselves and sometimes parents are surprised by how well their child does.
Ah! Curfews. This is especially a strong issue with the older teens who start pointing to how soon they will be off to college and won’t have curfews. The rising juniors (seniors in the fall) especially like to play on this. My general philosophy is that children need to learn to manage themselves while they are living at home where mistakes are more easily discovered and can be worked through. Too many parents try to micromanage their children to try to avoid mistakes. While children need structure to varying degrees, they also need a chance to test out their own capacity for self-management and to learn to suffer the consequences of their failures. Our job is not to try to mistake-proof our children. Therefore, I usually encourage parents to be a bit looser with summer curfews with 16 year olds and to do away with curfews for 17 year olds (as long as they have daytime responsibilities), with the standard requirement that the parents have a general idea who the child is with and what places he/she may be hanging out. While the child may abuse the freedom at first, the novelty wears off quickly, especially if they are dragging through the job the next morning.
Summers are not simply vacations. They are 10-week periods of new experiences, challenges and opportunities for growth on the part of children. Summers can create anxiety for parents and children, but if handled effectively, can, in fact, be a very special time for everyone.