It’s summertime and the living is easy – or so the song says.
But what if you happen to be a parent?
Sure, for some parents, summer offers a much-needed break: a chance to relax and coast after a frantically busy school year.
But, for others, the challenges of parenting actually ramp up during the summer months.
I know what it feels like to welcome the arrival of summer -- and to dread the arrival of summer as well -- because I've experienced both types of summers as a parent.
The joys of summer
Let's start out by talking about the joys.
The best thing about summer is the lack of structure and routine -- and the freedom it promises kids as well as parents.
Remember what it felt like when you were a kid as you walked out the classroom door on that final day of school? How free you felt? You knew that, for the next two months, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted. You could sleep in as late as you wanted to (or as late as your parents would allow you). You could make on-the-fly plans with your friends, deciding, at a moment’s notice, to go for a bike ride or explore a nearby ravine. It was all about possibility. The squares on the calendar were deliciously blank for the next two months and you were ready to make the most of that freedom.
Some parents are lucky enough to get to enjoy a taste of that very same freedom. They celebrate the fact that they’re liberated from the tasks of making lunches or supervising homework or getting kids to the bus stop on time. And if you’re the parent of a child who tends to experience a lot of struggles at school (a child who has a learning disability, a child who has a lot of behavioral challenges, a child who is dealing with any number of other types of social or academic challenges), you may welcome a break from all these added school-year stresses.
The challenges of summer
Of course, you're only able to enjoy the freedom of summer if you’re not simultaneously worrying about how you’re going to keep the kids busy and entertained for an entire summer, while you, the parent, go to work or run a business. And, these days, the majority of parents find themselves grappling with these challenges.
That's because the entire landscape of parenting has changed dramatically in recent decades. As recently as the mid-1970s, it was still the norm to have at least one parent home full-time – a parent who could provide the round-the-clock supervision that kids need during the summer months. But today, the norm is to have two parents employed full-time outside the home -- which kind of begs the question: “Who exactly is supposed to be taking care of the kids during the summer months?”
It's a problem that individual parents are left to solve for themselves -- and most parents end up with a patchwork of summer childcare solutions.
They might end up using some or all of their vacation to care for the kids for at least some of those weeks.
They might send the kids to summer activities for a week or two, if they can swing the logistics of getting the kids to and from those activities and come up with the necessary cash to pay for them, too.
They might be able to convince a grandparent to pinch hit for a little while (assuming, of course, that the grandparent isn’t working full-time – as many are).
But it’s all very pieced together, very expensive, and very stressful.
Add to this the fact that a growing number of Canadian parents are precariously employed and you can see that the challenges ramp up even further. How are you supposed to make summer plans for your kids when you have no idea what your work schedule is going to be? Or how much money you’ll be making?
And then there are the challenges that go along with being part of the so-called "gig economy." Sure, if you're self-employed, you have some flexibility when it comes to setting your own work schedule. But your workload doesn’t magically vaporize during the summer months, just because your kids are out of school. In fact, depending on your line of work, it might actually become even busier. Back when I had four school-aged kids and was working as a freelance magazine writer, August was always a challenge. That’s when magazine editors would start assigning articles for their meatiest issue of the year: the holiday issue. So I’d find myself trying to schedule interviews at times of day when my kids were least likely to need me (something that was pretty much impossible to predict). So much for the so-called freedom of working from home! I soon discovered that it meant the “freedom” to work at all hours of day or night – and right through your summer vacation, if need be. Some freedom!
Why summer can be extra challenging for some kids and some parents
All parents have to deal with garden-variety parenting challenges that result from changes to the family’s school year routine. They have to find ways to ensure that the kids aren’t glued to a screen all summer long. They need to make sure that the kids’ sleep and eating habits don’t get totally out-of-whack – because, when they do, everyone in the family pays the price. But, for some kids and some parents, the challenges can be far greater.
We humans are creatures of habit -- we thrive when life is predictable; when we’ve settled into a comfortable routine (or even rut).
For some kids, routine isn’t merely something that’s nice to have. It’s something they need to have in order to feel secure and function at their best. I’m thinking of all four of my kids, who have ADHD, and I’m thinking of my youngest son who has an autism spectrum disorder. Summers were particularly tough for him. He really missed the structure of the school-year routine.
And then there are the challenges faced by parents who share custody of their kids. They may have to come up with creative ways to make shared custody work at a time of year when many school-year routines go out the window – and when shifting schedules and vacation plans have to be factored in as well. And none of this is easy.
How to deal with summer parenting challenges
Wondering how to deal with these challenges? Here are two strategies that have worked well for me.
Join forces with other families. I know: I seem to offer that particular piece of advice a lot. But that’s because a lot of the problems that we’re grappling with as parents are too big for any individual family to solve on their own. So look for ways to pool your energies and resources so that every child on your street gets taken care of throughout the entire summer -- and so that every parent feels supported at the same time.
Tap into the wisdom of your kids. Rather than just spewing out a long list of family rules, talk with them about what it’s going to take for everyone in the family to have a great summer – and how every member of the family can help to make that happen. Your kids are more likely to want to buy into solutions that they helped to create – and, what’s more, kids often come up with creative solutions that adults can’t even imagine. So don’t be afraid to tap into the wisdom of your eight year old or your eighteen year old when it comes to keeping the lid on screen time, getting everyone fed, and ensuring that everyone’s getting the sleep they need to function at their best. Or when it comes to making time for fun.
Speaking of fun....
Remind yourself that summer is a limited time offer -- just as childhood is a limited time offer. Look for ways to make as many happy memories you can this summer (but in a low-stress, 100 percent guilt-free way).
This is something I was speaking to Nora Spinks about recently for my CBC Radio parenting column on this topic. She’s the CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. And this is what she had to say: "Families can make the most of summers by taking time. Be together. Laugh. It's a time to create memories. It's a time where you can try new things -- where you can be really present with your kids. You might not be able to be with them all the time, but, when you are, be present."
So it’s not about trying to turn every single moment you have with your kids this summer into a picture-perfect moment (because that’s impossibly high stakes for any parent). But it is about making at least some of these moments really count: about pausing long enough to ask yourself what you want your child to carry with him when he reflects back upon this particular summer in his childhood and what memories you want to carry with you when you reflect back on this particular chapter in your life as a parent. Have a great summer!
Related Post: The Recipe for a Perfect Childhood Summer
Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She has just finished writing a brand new book about parenting. That book will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.