I love the idea of summer. I love the idea of pool days with my kids, watermelon on the patio, building secret forts in the attic during rainstorms, and spoiling our dinner with ice cream. But the reality of summer is altogether something else. The reality of modern summers is an inane slog of scheduling sitters, negotiating work time with my husband, begging grandma’s to babysit, purchasing pool passes, museum passes, and whatever other pass seems appealing at the time. Then, there are camps. This year, my daughter’s teacher suggested three different academic camps for her to attend and the school sent her home with a summer workbook. She’s six.
I want my children to succeed. I want them to be tiny little nerds, scoring high on the SAT, attending an Ivy and then, in 10 years, going on the Today Show to talk about how their mother inspired them to be the youngest CEO of a fortune 500 company in history. And summer feels like the perfect time to close the gap created by our wealth and poor genetics.But I also want them to have fun. I want to give them the gift of freedom—of Kool-Aid and poison ivy, of bike riding and boredom.
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Dr Teresa Belton, a visiting Fellow at the School of Education & Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia, has made a career of studying children and their imaginations, argues for the value of boredom. She told the BBC, “Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them."
Boredom, she argues, is the key to creativity.
I spent the summers of my childhood in a creek behind our house. We ran from snakes, slid in the mud, and constructed an entire town from sticks and invented our own form of currency. As a parent, now, I realize that those summers must have cost my mother her sanity. The creek, in hindsight, was filled with trash. We were constantly falling out of trees and coming home with our eyes swollen shut with poison ivy. But they were the magic unattended moments that TS Elliot writes about in his poem "Dry Salvages." "The moment in and out of time… where we were the music."
But this freedom is in some ways a privilege that life offers few families. Work schedules make daycare and camp a necessity. Down time is a luxury many in America cannot afford. According to a Pew Research poll, only 29% of mothers are stay-at-home parents, the number for stay-at-home fathers is even lower. Childcare is expensive and often immersive. Unattended moments are a luxury of safety in a world that offers little of that commodity.
So out again come the iPads.
Galit Breen, author, educator, and mother, believes that boredom also teaches children the ability to find their own sense of balance. She allows her children to manage their own time over the summer, arguing. “I want to teach them to be balanced and to make great choices about how to spend their time on their own as a lifelong skill. If I'm doing it for them then they're balanced because of my skills not theirs.”
Parent and Montessori educator Jesse McCarthy also argues that this independence and summertime freedom builds a foundation for a better parent-child relationship. “We all need a break, especially to reenergize for meaningful work and learning,” argues McCarthy. “Even more importantly, we thrive most when we have a say in what work we’re doing, what knowledge we’re gaining. And in terms of building good relationships with our children, the more parents listen to and involve their children in decisions, the less friction.”
And yet, despite the overwhelming arguments for freedom and boredom, studies show that students lose intellectual ground over the summer. Educators and experts are adamant, parents need to keep their kids intellectually stimulated during the long summer days.
And letting your children stay bored is hard. The whining is annoying to say the least and if you are also juggling a deadline, it can be so much easier to hand over the remote, the phone, or the tablet. But it’s a vicious cycle. If I hand over the tablet, the whining stops, but comes back tenfold when screen-time limits are enforced.
In sum, summer is not an idyllic time of unattended moments. As a parent, it’s a crushing balance of finances, work, academic achievement, guilt, and fear. This summer, I broke. When I sat down to buy all the passes, and schedule dance camps and academic camps, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it financially or mentally. So somewhere between purchasing the passes and scheduling the sitter, I quit. I mean, I have the basics of what we need to get by for the summer. But beyond that, I cannot do it anymore.
I asked my friend and writer Evelyn Birkby how she managed to write with young children without the aid of TV. “You just tune out the whining,” she said. “Eventually they learn. But you have to hand over all your ideas of perfect and just get along with good enough.”
Maybe my ability to quit is a privilege, or natural result of a system that demands success from parents but does little to support them. Perhaps it’s a personal failure. So many other parents do this, why can’t I? Maybe it is all of those things. But sitting on my porch, eating watermelon with my kids, building a secret hide out in the bushes, then ignoring them when they are bored so I can read a crime novel, it finally does feel like a real summer. Not because it’s perfect, but just because it’s good enough.