This article is part of the Help! series.
Kids are funny. First they complain for months that they can’t wait for summer break, but within a few days they’re whining that, “There’s nothing to do.” Parents are funny, too. They also complain about how busy and tiring the school year is, but they don’t seem any happier than the kids once summer finally arrives.
Why is the reality of summer less glorious than its promise? In many cases, it’s because the transition from the school year is so sharp. Literally overnight, the family goes from a schedule dominated by school days, schoolwork, and after-school activities to one that has little built-in structure.
Kids who were micro-managed by an impersonal, set schedule suddenly have way more time on their hands than they know what to do with and their parents aren’t used to helping them handle it.
And so, all the bad ways of handling boredom kick in. Your kids race around the house acting crazy. They provoke each other and irritate the dog. They follow you constantly, pestering you so that you can’t get anything done. Or they try to lose themselves for hours in their electronic babysitters. You in turn, vacillate between feeling like a bad parent who doesn’t plan enough fun things for your kids and feeling resentful that they treat you like a cruise-ship director.
Is there anything you can do other than sign them up for seven consecutive VBSs, hoping no one notices?
There is, but it involves holding onto two noncompeting principles as you prepare your kids for their summer. It’s easy to hold onto one or the other of these principles, but since they’re complementary, you need to remember both.
First, as their parent, you are more responsible than any other authority for teaching them how to use the time God’s given them. That reality is also true during the school year when other people schedule their time, but it’s more obvious during the summer months. Your responsibility only decreases as your children get older and take more ownership of their calendars. Part of parenting, then, involves helping your kids learn to fill and organize their lives for good purposes.
Second, your responsibility does not replace your child’s. You are the most responsible human authority in their life, but they are directly responsible to the Lord for the time he’s given them. That means you need to help them learn that just like money, time is a valuable and limited resource that God has given and needs to be spent on things he delights in.
The summer is a great time to teach them to invest their time in things like developing relationships, exploring their gifts and talents, being creative, learning about the world God’s made, and contributing to his world by making others’ lives better. Will your kids do all of those things each day? No. But you want to sprinkle those elements over several months.
So, what does this look like practically?
First, you need to be intentional. Training never happens accidentally. Set aside some time to think carefully about what you want your child to value and the kinds of activities that will help them do so. Think about what it would mean for your child to continue developing spiritually, intellectually, physically, and artistically. What’s the next step for them in each of those areas? Are there things you’d like them to try? Are there deficiencies they need to address?
Second, who can help you think creatively about what your kids could do? Make a date to talk this through with your spouse. Grab a cup of coffee with a close friend to get their thoughts. Brainstorm ideas of what you might try with your kids with someone who knows them well. Look around church for parents whose kids seem to be growing into their own personalities and interests, then ask if they’d make time to share with you how they approach the summer.
You are more responsible than any other authority for teaching [your kids] how to use the time God’s given them.
Third, once you’ve got your list of activities, talk with your kids. Say something like, “Summer is coming and I’m wondering what your days will look like. Here are a few things that I think would be important for you (i.e., books to read, things to do, life skills to learn, places to go, friends to have over, etc.). What are you thinking?” As your children get older, begin by asking them what their plans are, then follow up with what you’re thinking.
This kind of conversation is part of helping them handle the transition. You’re forecasting that a change is coming, that living well involves planning for change, that summer “vacation” is not the same as inactivity, that you have expectations of them, that they should learn to have expectations of themselves and that they have a role in the process.
Fourth, help your child see and own their responsibility throughout the summer. Inevitably, regardless of how well you’ve planned, you can expect your kids to need help mastering their time. What can you do when they say, “I’m bored” (or just act like it)?
Tell them, “Go get a piece of paper and write down five things you could do right now.” You don’t need to explain to them, but making that list is itself an activity that focuses their energy on doing something constructive. It also gives them a tool to manage their time while helping them learn that they, not you, are responsible for what they do with it.
When they come back to you with their list, look it over and if the options are reasonable then accept them without commenting on them—this is their list, not yours. Then say, “That looks great. Now, go ahead, pick one and get started.”
You should probably expect some resistance from your child since they’ve already told you that they believe it’s your job to make life interesting for them. That’s the subtext when they tell you, “I’m bored.” They’re saying, “I don’t know what to do, but it’s not my job to take ownership of my life. It’s yours.” By having them generate a list of options, you’re communicating, “No, you are responsible for what you do in life because just like me, God has told you to rule over his world (Gen. 1:28, 2:15), which includes using your time well.”
The summer season doesn’t have to be something parents dread. Make it a time instead that helps your kids learn how to take their God-given place in his world.
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