Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

Family Games Night is Supposed to be Fun. So Why is Everybody Crying?

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: scheduling a family games night. Back when you first added “family games night” to the calendar, you had a picture in your head of how much fun this night would be for you and your kids, with everyone talking and laughing as you moved your game pieces around the board. Of course, that fantasy only lasted until the moment you actually started playing. Then, before you knew it, one kid was crying, another was stomping out of the room, and you were left wondering how it could all go so wrong so fast….

As it turns out, this is a pretty common scenario. It’s not just your family that has a hard time playing board games. Almost every parent I’ve talked to about the supposed joy of family games night has a board game horror story to share with me. Kids crying, parents trying to convince them that there’s nothing to cry about, kids crying harder. It’s the stuff of which not-so-great family memories are made….

Fortunately there are things you can do to put the fun back in family games night.

One option is to make a point of playing cooperative games (games that encourage players to work as members of team that is pursuing a common goal like solving a puzzle). Now I have to say, I didn’t have a lot of success getting my kids excited about playing cooperative games during their growing up years. Some of the games I purchased at the time were (dare I say it?) pretty boring! But apparently cooperative games have come a long way since then. In fact, according to a couple of parents I have spoken with recently, the current generation of cooperative games (games like Codenames, for example) are challenging enough to actually be fun for adults and kids alike. Trust me: that’s a big improvement!

Another option is to tweak the rules of traditional games to make them a little less cut throat. This is the approach my friend Cathy chose to take when her two daughters were growing up. I have fond memories of our two families playing Cathy’s kinder, gentler version of Monopoly. Here are a few examples of how the game would work. If a player was down on her luck, the other players could help that player out by paying her tax bill or picking up the tab for her rent as opposed to gleefully driving her into bankruptcy. Likewise, a player who was lucky enough to land on “Free Parking” and who got to scoop up all the free money was expected to share that financial windfall with other players. Cathy’s version of the rules didn’t make the game any less enjoyable — but it certainly cut back on the tears. I don’t have a single memory of any player crying. Not ever!

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with another parent, Jenny Raspberry, who has found other creative ways of tweaking the rules of traditional games to make them more fun and less cut throat for her two school-aged kids. Starting when her kids were really little, she gave them the opportunity to play grown-up board games, but in a way that wouldn’t be too discouraging or too frustrating. She started out by giving her kids the chance to join a team led by an adult. A five year old’s role as a junior member of the team might be to role the dice or spin the game spinner or to move the game piece around the board (the actual fun stuff when you’re a five year old). Being part of a team gave her kids a way to be part of the game and to learn the rules in a non-threatening, age-appropriate way. And if the team lost, it was no big deal because it wasn’t the child’s loss, it was the team’s loss, and so it felt a whole lot less personal.

Of course, some people may wonder if it’s a good idea to dial back on that element of competition. After all, don’t kids have to learn how to hold their own in a fiercely competitive world? Sure, they do have to learn that lesson eventually — but I don’t think we have to go out of our way to look for opportunities to teach them that lesson. Life has a way of delivering those kinds of learning opportunities on a fairly regular basis, after all.

Jenny has found some sensible middle ground. She tells her kids, who are now eight and ten, that they won’t always have the opportunity to play by their family’s kinder and gentler board game rules. There will be times when they are playing board games at someone else’s house when they’ll have to play by the official (and inevitably harsher) rules. She also tells them that they’ll have to practice being gracious losers and gracious winners so that other people will actually want to play games with them again.

So it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition (you don’t have to raise kids who are only willing to pay cooperative games or competitive games) and the rules can evolve over time, as kids get more practice at being good winners and good losers.

Another way to reduce the amount of crying during board games is to ask yourself upfront what kind of experience you want your family to have while they’re playing the game — and to choose your board game accordingly. This is something Jenny thinks about a lot. She loves playing board games as a family, but that doesn’t mean she’s necessarily a fan of every kind of board game. Frankly, she’s not…. She explains: “I feel like any game where you can be purposefully malicious to another player….[tends] to lead to more harsh feelings.” These types of games also tend to trigger a desire for revenge — and those aren’t exactly the kinds of feelings she wants to be promoting when the goal is to have a fun time as a family.

That’s not to say that you want to avoid playing cut-throat games entirely, but, if you do decide to play that kind of game, maybe you want to talk a bit about what’s happening in the game. Is it fair that a few lucky rolls of the dice can give a particular player a huge advantage? How does it feel to be one of the other players in the game — say a player who is really down on his luck?

As it turns out, that was one of the original intentions of the inventor of the 1904 board game The Landlord’s Game – the game that inspired Monopoly: to spark these very types of conversations. The inventor of that game, Lizzie Magie, had envisioned her game as a critique of capitalism. In fact, at one point her game came with two very different sets of rules: one set that promoted widespread prosperity (a world in which every player had the potential to do well) and one set that created a winner-takes-all situation (the version of the game that inspired Monopoly).

Is it worth the effort to have these kinds of conversations – and to put so much thought into the types of board games you choose to play with your kids? Jenny Raspberry thinks it is. She told me that her family is already reaping the rewards of being mindful of their approach to playing board games. “The best for me is when my daughter is having a hard time in the game and my son says, ‘It’s okay’ or ‘Yay, good for you!’ when she [makes a good move]: to see them copying what I’m trying to instil. Yes, they are sometimes still poor sports, but when the positive comes out, I really feel like, ‘Oh, they’re going to have each others’ backs in life.’ And, for me, that’s the best.”

So it’s all about finding that sensible middle ground: a way to make family games night fun as opposed to a source of mutual dread.

Let the board games begin!

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Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. Her brand new book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

Teaching Kids About Gratitude: An Ages and Stages Guide

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It’s the stuff of which parental nightmares are made. At a time of year that’s supposed to be all about gratitude, your child decides to demonstrate how extraordinarily ungrateful she is for the Thanksgiving dinner your parents or your in-laws just spent hours, if not days, preparing.

It’s a cringe-worthy moment that can have you wondering if you are destined to raise the world’s most ungrateful kid….

The good news is that the situation isn’t nearly as hopeless as it may feel.

Children can—and do—learn how to express gratitude.

I shed some light on this seemingly mysterious process in my weekend parenting column for CBC Radio.

What follows are the key takeaways from that column.

The case for teaching kids about gratitude

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty and take an ages-and-stages guide to gratitude, here’s a quick refresher course on the benefits of teaching kids about gratitude.

As it turns out, the benefits are considerable. Learning to recognize and act on feelings of gratitude is pretty much the recipe for a happy life — and it’s been that way for a very long time. Over 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Cicero described gratitude as “not only the greatest of virtues” but “the parent of all the other [virtues],” in recognition of the far-reaching benefits of expressing gratitude.

And as for those benefits? We’re talking better health, better happiness, and better relationships. As the authors of a 2014 study published in School Psychology Review put it: “Teaching habits of gratitude to youth could affect their mental health and positive behaviour for years to come.” So it’s definitely worth the effort.

Teaching kids about gratitude: an ages-and-stages guide

If you’re expecting your toddler to express genuine gratitude (as opposed to, say, merely going through the motions of saying thank you), you’re going be terribly disappointed. According to child development experts, it takes time for children to truly understand what it means to feel grateful—and to know how to express that emotion to another person.

You see, in order to feel grateful to another person you have to be able to see the world through another person’s eyes — to understand the sacrifices they might have made, big or small, to do this kind thing for you. Children aren’t capable of that kind of perspective taking until around the age of four, so they really aren’t capable of expressing genuine gratitude until that time. And, even then, that their understanding of gratitude is still very much a work-in-progress.

Then, starting at around age seven, a child’s understanding of gratitude deepens. That’s when children become capable of understanding more complex emotions, like jealous, pride, and — yes — gratitude.

And as their capacity to understand the feelings and motivations of other people continues to improve as they move through the teen years, so too does their capacity for feeling and expressing gratitude. They might suddenly recognize how much family time their sports coach is sacrificing for the good of the team and be moved to express gratitude to the coach for that sacrifice.

How forcing kids to say “thank you” can backfire

Parents sometimes feel pressured to say things to their children like: “Don’t forget to say thank you to Grandma!” But, as it turns out, it’s not a particularly effective way to help kids to understand and express feelings of gratitude.

If you force a child to go through the motions of expressing gratitude when he’s not actually feeling that emotion, spitting out that “thank you” is going to start to feel like a chore. Sure, your child may go through the motions, if only to avoid getting into trouble, but it’s unlikely that this new gratitude habit will stick — or at least not in any meaningful way. You’re merely teaching your child to fake an emotion that he’s not actually feeling — as opposed to encouraging him to recognize and act on genuine feelings of gratitude.

Toronto mother of four Louise Gleeson has made a conscious effort to steer clear of this approach: “I want my children to learn about gratitude by experiencing it firsthand — as opposed to being told they should be feeling it,” she explains.

What actually helps kids to acquire an “attitude of gratitude”

Worried that you’re destined to raise the world’s least grateful child? You’ll be relieved to hear that there are things you can do to gently nudge the process along. You might want to encourage your child to notice how much time, energy, and/or effort some other person put into doing something kind thing – and to reflect on the ways they themselves benefitted from this act of kindness. According to the research, that’s what helps children to develop a sense of gratitude: being giving the chance to peek behind the curtain and discover for themselves just how gratitude works.

Of course, one of the most effective ways to teach children about gratitude is to simply adopt an “attitude of gratitude” as a family: to allow gratitude to provide a backdrop to daily living — the lens through which your family engages with the world. This is something I was speaking with Vancouver mother Angela Crocker about recently. She told me that the secret to teaching kids about gratitude is to model it, talk about it, and look for opportunities to live it as a family. “In our family, we have quiet expressions of appreciation. It’s just part of everyday living. We say thank you when we pass the salt. We say thank you when we help each other. And sometimes it’s not even a matter of using the words ‘thank you.’ It’s a physical expression, so it might be in the form of a hug or someone bringing you a cup of tea. It’s not really a formal thank you, but it’s understood that it’s an act of appreciation.”

So we don’t have to make these conversations about gratitude something big and complicated. And, as Angela noted, we don’t always have to express that gratitude in words. We can express it via a well-timed cup of tea!

Some fun activities to spark conversations about gratitude

Looking for some fun Thanksgiving weekend activities to help spark conversations about gratitude? Here are a few activities to try with your kids.

Got a kid who likes to write? Think about starting a family gratitude journal that you update on special occasions or consider writing a letter of gratitude to someone who did something kind or thoughtful for your family. (Tip: For added impact, deliver the letter in person or via video chat, so your child will have the opportunity to see the recipient’s reaction.)

Got a kid who loves doing crafts? Consider creating a family gratitude collage (a collage of photos, drawings, and words that capture all the people and things you are grateful for) or making a gratitude paper chain (a chain made of individual paper links spelling out all the things you’re grateful for) or a gratitude paper quilt (similar to the paper chain, except in this case, you’re writing those words of gratitude on a series of squares and then assembling those squares into a quilt).

Got a kid who is really into math? Make a gratitude graph! This is a fun exercise to try when you have a large number of extended family members and friends present in the same place at one time—like around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Each person records the things they’re grateful for on a series of sticky notes – and then you cluster everyone’s sticky notes together to create a graph highlighting family gratitude trends: “Seven people are grateful for this delicious dinner, six people are grateful for warm sweaters on a chilly day, five people are grateful that we’re all together, one person is grateful that the neighbour’s dog is finally finished barking….” That kind of thing.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the activities themselves aren’t magical. The activities alone won’t teach kids how to feel and express gratitude. That’s your job as the grownup: to journey alongside them as they make their own gratitude discoveries. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place as a family? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

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Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Finding Your Way in an Empty (or Emptier) Nest

The transition to an empty nest can feel gut-wrenching and/or disorienting at first -- but you can find your way over time. 

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It's the little things that tend to do you in: the sight of a too-empty refrigerator; the fact that you're no longer tripping over a small mountain of running shoes each time you attempt to enter or exit the front door; and the silence that greets you if you happen to be brave enough to step foot in your child's now-empty room. 

The transition to an empty nest (or an emptier nest, as the case may be) can be a rough one, especially during the early days. Sure, you've known this day was coming from the moment you became a parent, but it can catch you off guard nonetheless. ("How did the past 18 years manage to fly by so quickly?" you ask yourself as you hug your child goodbye and exit his dorm room.)

It doesn't seem all that long ago that you were trying to wrap your head around the fact that you were about to become a parent -- and now this chapter in your life is coming to a close. Or so it seems....

But is it? Are you obsolete? Have you actually outlived your usefulness as a parent? Or could it be that you're about to enter an exciting new stage together? (Or at least once you're finally able to stop crying?!!!) Based on what I've learned over the past ten years while watching my own four kids exit the nest, I would have to say it's definitely the latter. This isn't the end. It's more like a beginning. There are great times ahead. But you have to allow yourself to feel what ever it is you're feeling before you can find your way to that happier place.

And here's something else you need to know: there’s no right or wrong way to feel as you weather this milestone transition in your life as a parent. Your feelings may surprise you. You may feel more devastated or more relieved than you had ever imagined yourself feeling. And that's okay!

It's also pretty common to experience a mix of emotions. According to developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnott, 84 percent of new empty nesters report missing their kids; 90 percent say they’re happy their kids are more independent; and 60 percent report that they’re looking forward to having more time to spend with a partner or spouse. 

Looking for some strategies to help you manage that cocktail of emotions? Here are a few tips, based on what I've experienced firsthand and what I've learned from other parents. (Note: If you prefer to listen to the audio version of these tips, you can tune into my recent interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.)

Give yourself a chance to feel all the feelings

Resist the temptation to fast-forward through these emotions -- and know that the intensity of these emotions will start to ease over time. 

Talk to other parents who’ve weathered this transition and come out the other side

Look for people who will help to reassure you that what you’re experiencing isn’t actually an ending, but more like a beginning: the start of an exciting new chapter in your life and a brand new relationship with your child.

Offer that same kind of support to other parents

Reach out to other empty nesters you know who might be having an exceptionally tough time. And be sure to make a point of looking out for the dads as well as the moms. After all, it's not as if moms have a monopoly on experiencing that aching feeling of loneliness when they stumble into a child’s now-empty bedroom. Dads feel it, too. And we need to ensure that they know that it's okay to talk about it as well.

Set a new goal for yourself

Remember all those years when you longed for a bit of time to yourself? Now you've got that time. So set a goal for yourself. Sign up for a course, acquire a new hobby, train for your first 5K, or plan a weekend getaway to a place you’ve always wanted to go – perhaps with someone you haven’t had the chance to spend time with in a while. In other words, embrace the freedom that comes from having a bit more time to yourself and for all the other important relationships in your life. Not only will this help you feel better (or, at a minimum, a little less awful): you'll also be modelling healthy resilience for your kids. You'll be demonstrating your ability to embrace new opportunities as opposed to, say, moping around the house -- or turning your kids' empty bedrooms into shrines! 

Stay connected in a way that works for your child and for you

Look for opportunities to maintain your connection to your child -- and don’t feel that you need to apologize for doing so. At a time when parents are frequently (and often unfairly) lambasted for being “helicopter parents,” you might be hesitant to provide your child with the behind-the-scenes emotional support and connection that actually encourages first-year college and university students to thrive.

Of course, what you say (and how you say it) matters a lot. You want to be kind, supportive, and encouraging. You want to express full confidence in your child’s ability to cope with whatever curveballs happen to come her way. And, finally, you want to remind her that she can reach out to you for support at any time, because family is forever and your love is unconditional. 

All that said, it’s important to recognize that some students will welcome more day-to-day contact with their parents than others. Some will benefit from a steady stream of encouraging messages from back home -- while others may want to pull away a little at first as they dive into the carnival-like excitement of campus life. Let your child take the lead in determining the frequency and mode of communication (text messages versus phone calls or face-to-face visits), but don’t be afraid to reach out if he or she drops the communication ball. Odds are your child will welcome a semi-regular stream of “thinking of you” messages from back home. (According to a December 2015 study conducted by the BMO Wealth Institute, over half of Canadian parents reported having contact with their young adults every day or almost every day. And young adults welcome that contact, with just 23% complaining that their parents were overly involved in their lives.)

Ultimately, that contact is good for them—and it’s good for you, too. Research shows that life satisfaction increases for parents during the empty nest stage for those parents are in frequent contact with their young adult child. So don't feel pressured to pull away as you enter this new phase in your relationship with your child. Your child still needs you as much as ever. They just happen to need you differently, that's all.


Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Back-to-School Parenting: That White Space on Your Calendar? It's Called Breathing Room

That white space on your calendar? It's called breathing room -- and it's good for you and your kids.

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Back-to-school season also happens to be extra-curricular activity sign-up season: that time of year when it is tempting to sign your kids (and yourself!) up for every conceivable activity. Everything sounds so exciting and so much fun. And it is -- as long as it doesn't tip your family into complete overload mode. 

Last year at this time, I shared some strategies for resisting the temptation to fill each and every square of your family's calendar with all kinds of fabulous activities.

This year, I'm going to build on that earlier post by talking about the benefits of leaving a little white space on your calendar -- of allowing your child to experience a healthy amount of boredom.

The upside of boredom

In our culture, we tend to think of boredom as a bad thing -- as something to be avoided at all costs. But what if it isn't actually something to be feared and dreaded? What if it's actually more like a gift? 

As it turns out, there are at least three significant benefits to allowing our kids -- and ourselves -- to be bored, at least according to the growing body of research on the science of boredom. 

1. Boredom encourages creativity

This happens because being bored is such a deeply uncomfortable feeling for us humans. Our brains will do pretty much anything to avoid it. You've no doubt experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you were stuck in a meeting room, waiting for someone else to arrive: someone who was running really, really late. As the minutes kept ticking away, you grew increasingly restless, and, out of utter, sheer desperation, you looked for a way to entertain yourself. Suddenly your eyes hit upon a stash of office supplies. And, before you knew it, you were making a chain out of paper clips or a patchwork quilt out of sticky notes. Anything to relieve the boredom! 

It's not just you, by the way, who finds boredom incredibly uncomfortable. One group of people who were participating in a scientific study about boredom actually voluntarily subjected themselves to electric shocks as a means of relieving those very same feelings! It was either sit there and do nothing or give yourself an electric shock. They opted for the electric shock!

The challenge for most of us these days is to actually allow ourselves to sit with these feelings of boredom and to encourage our kids to do the same. If we reach for our cell phones as a way to relieve those feelings of boredom, we miss out on the opportunities to exercise the creative parts of our brain. Likewise, if we rush in too soon to solve the so-called "problem" of boredom for our kids, we rob them of these opportunities, too. 

This is something I was speaking with Christine Hennebury about recently for a recent CBC Radio parenting column. She's a creativity coach and mother of two and a firm believer in the benefits of boredom. Here's what she had to say: "Teaching our kids to be okay with the discomfort of being bored can help us to gain a little mental real estate for ourselves -- and I think it's good problem-solving practice for them. The more problems they solve on their own -- including the problem of being bored and the ability to get comfortable with that uncertainty of 'What do I do next?' -- the fewer problems that we will have to solve for them." 

So you get a break.

The kids get to work on their problem-solving skills.

It's pretty much the ultimate win-win!

2. Being bored can reconnect you with your sense of purpose.

When you're bored, your mind starts to wander in a good way that encourages broader and more expansive thinking. Suddenly, you're able to see the broader perspective, the so-called big picture, as opposed to narrowly fixating on the minutiae of daily living. You're able to connect the dots between past, present, and future, something that allows you to derive a greater sense of meaning and purpose from your life. You know who you are, where you've been, and where you're headed. Your life actually starts to feel like it makes sense!

3. Being bored can make you a kinder person.

This is one of the more fascinating findings I stumbled across while pouring through the research on boredom while writing my forthcoming book. Spending time in a state of boredom actually encourages altruism, empathy, and acts of kindness. Researchers think that this is the direct result of the very thing we were just talking about: the fact that being bored encourages us to engage in deeper and more expansive thinking -- the kind of deeper thinking that allows us to become the best and wisest version of ourselves. We're no longer living our lives on autopilot, in a state of perpetual distraction. Instead, we have the opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us in life, like our relationships with other people. And that, in turn, encourages us to come up with creative ways of nurturing those relationships. We're so much happier and healthier as a result.

Helping kids to get comfortable with being bored

So now that we've talked about the benefits of boredom, let's talk about what it takes to help kids to become comfortable with the feeling of being bored and to figure out how to solve the problem of boredom for themselves. 

As parents, we can help them to understand that boredom is actually a good thing, not something to be feared or avoided at all costs. They need to know that the restless feeling we experience when we're really, really bored is designed to spur us to action. It's like an error message from your brain telling your body, "Hey! We've got to do something differently here!" The challenge is to figure out what that "different" might be. Maybe it means switching from a boring task (like mindlessly surfing the Internet) to a more interesting task (like doing art or solving a puzzle). And sometimes it means finding a way to make a boring task less boring (perhaps listening to some music while you're unloading the dishwasher).

And, of course, this is a skill we can practice in our own lives as well -- because being a grownup can be pretty boring at times, too. Think about it. Folding laundry is never going to rank up there as one of life's top ten most thrilling experiences. Ditto for washing dishes or, if you're a parent, listening to a six year old rhyme off an endless stream of "knock, knock" jokes. 

When boredom becomes a problem

Of course, as with anything else in life, you can get too much of a good thing -- even when that "good thing" means being bored. Extreme amounts of boredom can trigger unhealthy or even risky behaviours. Not only is boredom associated with mindless eating: it's also linked to substance abuse, bad driving, risky sex, problem gambling, and even political extremism. And it has been linked to poor grades, increased dropout rates, and difficulty managing impulses. 

That last bit brings to mind the time when two of my boys decided to relieve their feelings of boredom by playing with the can of spray paint they found in the next door neighbour's garage. As they discovered, curiosity may be the cure for boredom, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. Or, as boredom researcher Andreas Elipidorou likes to put it: "The interesting isn't always beneficial." (Fortunately, the neighbours were pretty understanding.)

So you definitely don't want your kids to be bored 24/7. Extra-curricular activities can be a godsend -- in moderation.

It's about finding that sweet spot between total boredom and total overload.

That's where the magic happens as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Summer Parenting Challenges

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.

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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.