Essays, opinions and rants

What the Kids are Doing

What the Kids are Doing

“What are the kids doing this summer?”

It’s an innocent, ubiquitous, small-talky question, though one I usually forget to ask anyone. Maybe that’s subconscious. When the question is directed at me, I tense up, in a subversive-bordering-on-criminal way. Mildly stage-frightened, I lead with the most socially acceptable portion of my answer. 

“Well, the 10-year-old is signed up for a three-month rock climbing class,” I begin. 

That usually prompts follow-up questions. Then, rather than lie or evade, I serve up the real meat: That’s all we’ve got. One weekly two-hour activity for one of our two kids. And yep, summer starts next week.

“We’re going to go camping,” I continue, flailing, “and some people are coming to visit, and we’re just going to, um, hang out and relax.” 

The questioners, possibly dying of embarrassment on my behalf, nod and murmur affirmations; ‘Yes, relaxing will be wonderful, summer is so peaceful,’ and so on, which they of course do not believe or practice. Nobody does. But to preserve the social contract, they act like my answer doesn’t sound deeply bizarre/wrong.

Later I go back over it all in my mind. Should we schedule more activities? Are we devoting enough attention to the kids’ development? Will so much downtime backfire? Why do we have more adults-only concert tickets purchased than family activities planned for upcoming months – are we neglectful? Not child-centered enough? Are we screwing this up?

There are no answers.

We’re underscheduled. Not because we’re aiming to take a big stand against overscheduling, though it would be handy to spin it that way. It just sort of happened this year.

The 10-year-old has made clear that she just wants to roam around our new neighborhood with friends throughout July and August (a delightful plan, unless those friends are fully booked). The 14-year-old, coming off an academically and emotionally draining year, wants to sleep as much as humanly possible and also gorge on screens. Which we signed off on.

Part of the empty calendar could be our move to a new community – maybe there are cool activities the kids would love but we aren’t dialed in enough yet to know about them.

The other part is that nothing requiring a sign-up and deposit is calling to any of us. 

The kids don’t need extra academic work or tutors. They already study computer science and coding all year long in school. Neither is interested in competitive sports any longer. One never was. 

The eldest gave up playing clarinet after four years. The youngest hasn’t started playing an instrument yet. The kids make art at home. Other than the rock climbing, neither has expressed interest in any new skill or hobby.

It’s hard to articulate, and goes against current norms, but deep down I’m okay with the lack-of-plan plan, which is obviously why I haven’t filled the days in advance. Sometimes it seems like the summer kid activity juggernaut is a (lovingly intended) extension of the frisson of importance we grownups derive from our own busyness. 

The adult trend of running one’s life as though one is a harried-yet-competent-as-hell CEO perhaps started when we all got cell phones and felt the rush of being seen talking on our phones in public, announcing to the world that our lives were too full – too important! – for calls to wait until we got to a land line. We all felt like the Secret Service for a while. 

Now that 100% of us talk on cell phones in public, the faux CEO lifestyle is starting to get dissed rather thoroughly. Between meditation becoming as popular as the Clooneys and authors publishing titles like How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, grownup pendulums are swinging back toward sanity. 

Our kids’ pendulums, though, are still pretty far out there, an often-frantic amalgam of parental devotion, fear, disposable income and college application paranoia. Even when parents try to rein in kids’ schedules, summer activities are so fun that they sneak right past the calendar cops. Camp is a privilege, right? Why not several camps? Who would argue that camp isn’t the bomb?

Not me. Camp is the bomb. But kids who know how to make their own entertainment, who sit with boredom and develop agency over it, who discover earlier rather than later that the world isn’t always going to deliver experiences tailored to their proclivities – those kids are also the bomb. 

(Darlings, you wish to peruse the spa menu of curated top-shelf enrichments aimed at your whims and maturation? How about a nice big bowl of go outside? And take a bag with you to pick up the dog poop.) 

Is that a copout, a handy way to explain our schedule – we’re basically saving the world by not raising entitled little Veruca Salts who want it now?

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not going to plan to pat myself on the back, then lie on the couch with cigarettes and Diet Dr. Pepper while they climb on rusty, jagged play equipment and befriend stray dogs and guys in passing automobiles. Those were my summers, and this is theirs.

Here’s what our family is going to do between now and Labor Day, when the kids aren’t sleeping:

  • Become regulars at the local farmers markets 
  • …and the food trucks
  • Go camping now that we live in a dry and mostly bugless climate, hallelujah
  • Ride bikes
  • Hike
  • Swim
  • Plant some flowers
  • Watch movies
  • A water park would be cool one day
  • Read on the deck 
  • Go to free outdoor concerts
  • Make homemade pizza on the grill (with store-bought dough)
  • Try new recipes
  • Hit thrift stores in the nearby bigger city
  • …and its amazing library with art installations and rooftop deck
  • Make more friends and get to know the town
  • Throw parties (three of four family members have summer birthdays)
  • Make stuff – not sure what, but a rock garden is one idea 
  • Prioritize staying awake for August meteor showers 

It seems like enough. More than enough; this is triple what I did at their age over the course of a summer (with the resulting free-ranging not always ending well). So we’ll give this a try and if it’s a total shitshow I will let you know. And if you want to join us for any of the abovementioned activities and your schedule permits, come on over! We’ll be around. 

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