In the past week, at the beginning of June in the Summer of COVID-19, my email has been filling up with people wondering what to do with their kids this summer. Having struggled through the spring with distance learning and the upheaval to regular routines and plans, the anxiety about the summer is at a high level. Camps are cancelled. Summer programs are cancelled. Even for those that may continue, worries about social distancing and kids going into large groups are high, to say nothing of parents who may be trying to work from home and can’t plan activities. So, I’ve been asked repeatedly, what are parents and families to do?
How about nothing?
I’m serious. What if kids were left, largely, to their own devices this summer? What if they had to come up with things to entertain themselves? What if you made kids responsible for their own fun?
I know that sounds radical, but that’s what summer was like in the 1970s—and the 1960s—for the vast majority of kids. Sure, some kids went to sleepaway camp or day camp, or had some structured programs, but there wasn’t an entire industry of keeping kids occupied during the summer months. Outside of summer reading lists for school, there weren’t requirements. It was a respite after the rigors of the academic year. It was a time to be with friends, develop social skills, pursue interests, be creative and just have fun. It was freedom from adult micromanagement. What was learned was self-management and self-reliance. What was experienced was creativity, an ability to take action and an understanding of agency.
The Value of “Benign Neglect”
In summer, my brothers and I were basically turned out of the house after breakfast, which, by the way, we got for ourselves as soon as we were able. TV was not allowed on a nice day, and while we had boundaries about where we could go in our extended neighborhood, I don’t think our parents really knew what we were up to. We had to be home for dinner, and we might be home for lunch, though we might have it a friend’s house or they at ours.
Our parents made sure we were fed, clothed, had a safe place to live and understood our rights and responsibilities. We knew that our “freedom” came with responsibilities, and that those could be taken away. It was what I have always called “benign neglect.” There were other parents in our neighborhood, mostly moms who stayed home during those years, who were peripherally aware of what we were doing, and there was always someone to help in an emergency. By the way, what constituted an “emergency” needed to involve blood or fire. Parents had their own lives, and their boundaries were as clear as ours.
So, what did it look like? Games. Reading. Riding bikes. Trips to the library. Time with brothers and friends. Time alone. During the summer, we lived in “kid world,” which was distinct from “family world,” where we interacted with our parents or went on vacation as a family, and it was definitely separate from “adult world,” of which we were not a part.
Giving Your Kids a 70s Summer
In practice, it may be as difficult for you to give up control, as it will be for kids to be suddenly “cut loose.” So, try it in stages. Think about what your kids can do on their own and talk to them about what they want. It may cause you a little anxiety at first, but many kids have something we never did—phones. While it can be wonderful for kids to be out of touch and dealing with their own world, this can be an invaluable tool for everyone’s peace of mind.
Only you can decide what’s an appropriate level of unsupervised time and activity for your child, but one thing is certain, trusting kids to be responsible is very powerful—for all of you. Kids tend to respond to adults empowering them, as if they’re now grown up enough. And let them know there are consequences for not being responsible as well, meaningful ones. You can reliably expect that your boundaries will be tested; that’s what kids do. Take it in stride and always try to make “the punishment fit the ‘crime.’”
Parents need to stay strong as well. If you decide to limit TV, videogames and other screen time, stick to it. Encourage a variety of activities from physical to social to creative, to intellectual. And then get out of the way and go on with your own life.
This is highly beneficial for kids as they learn that they can make choices on their own, and many of them will be exciting and rewarding. There may be mistakes, but those are learning opportunities as well. If you’ve given your kids a strong sense of their abilities, your family’s values and set boundaries, this may be your best summer yet.
There was one thing we learned very quickly never to say to my mother: “I’m bored.” Her answer was always a curt, “No, you’re not.” She would add, “You have your brothers, your books, your games and all of outdoors. Figure it out.” It was one of the best gifts we could have gotten.
Of course, she was also famous for saying, “Everyone is in bed, and no one went to the Emergency Room, so it’s a good day.”
Change doesn’t come without risk, but our summers were unforgettable and helped us become the adults we are today.