Summertiiiime, and the livin' is actually not so easy. This is my sixth summer being at home with the kids. It is without structure. It is free form. It is a freaking disaster. Or at least it can be, if I don't do it right.
Summer in Maine, where I live, is by far the best time of year. The snow birds, as they're called, the older folks who move to Florida in the winter -- they all flock back for these three months or so. It's rarely hotter than about 80 in the day. Few in Maine have central air, just because it doesn't really get that toasty. At night it's a pleasant 60, so it's easy sleeping.
When summer hits, something comes over Dana and Tess. They visibly relax. Their faces, drawn tight by having toughed out another snowy-ass winter, become looser. They smile. The outside beckons, with pleasant birdcalls and shining fields, and each morning they pull at my elbow to take them out there, before we've even finished breakfast.
There are trails to hike. Extremely manageable mountains to summit. Waterways in which to kayak. Swimming holes where we can dunk our heads, when it truly gets hot.
Sounds pretty nice, right? A lot of the time, it is.
But for me, and for the stay-at-home parent in general, there are a couple of simple rules for summer. Otherwise, things can go drastically wrong. I can end up counting the days until school starts again. The kids can end up tag-team smacking me with ludicrously bad behavior, one having a meltdown, then as I finally chill them out, the other starts a meltdown. Or even worse: the double meltdown. It's almost like they wink at each other as a signal, and are like, okay, NOW, hit him.
In this, my sixth summer, I certainly don't have it all figured out. But I'm closer than ever to having the right formula. Gotta stick to the rules.
Rule one. Kids need structure. Duh. We all know this. But it's even true in summer. I've heard all these cool ideas from parents about how their kids wake up and there's a note and it says: here are your chores for the morning. Do all these, and you'll get today's wi-fi password. This induces groans in the kids, but I gotta say, I loved this idea. So I'm doing something similar. Dana gets 30 minutes of screen in the morning when he first wakes up. Then it goes off until he earns a sticker. How does he earn it? First, he has to do a chore, one that my wife or I select for him to do. Next, 30 minutes of reading, and it has to be a non-graphic novel, and a book he's never read before. Side note: I have nothing against graphic novels and even wrote one myself, but I need him to put in some serious time reading traditional books, since he's being asked to do so in school much more these days.
Okay, what else does he need to get the sticker? One more thing. He busted his ass to learn multiplication at the end of third grade this past year, basically mastering it as time expired. Sort of a two-minute drill of nine times eight, and six times seven. We really want him to keep up those tables, and also get a handle on division before fall comes. He's good at math, he just needs to work on it consistently. So I found this awesome app, a package of apps really, called Squeebles, and they have division, multiplication, a bunch of math stuff, and even some spelling, where you the parent can type in words you want your kid to learn. I like the app because I can go in and tailor the problems for him, taking all the one times tables, for example, since he can do those in his sleep. I also like it because it keeps track of all the ones he gets wrong, and has a whole separate section for them called tricky tables. Dana likes it because the whole thing is like a game, and it even has rewards and stars and shit, like a game. Now, we aren't gunner parents. We don't push him and have never scheduled any extracurricular academic anything for him, I don't think. This app is really just to preserve the math he just learned, so it doesn't disappear over the summer.
Dana doesn't have to earn the sticker every day--only if he wants any more screen. He's certainly free to go outside for the rest of the day and do none of the sticker tasks. But when he gets one, I put it on this calendar I printed out for him. When he gets five stickers, he gets a prize. Which I haven't specified yet. He can also earn another sticker on any given day by doing another 30 minutes of reading.
There was a lot of grumbling on the first few days about the sticker program. And there still is, sometimes. But mostly it's good. It's sort of what I saw his teacher doing every time I came into the classroom. Everything she did was like, here's what I expect of you. I'm in charge and this is what you're gonna do, academically. And he responded well to that. We'll see whether we can keep this up all summer.
Tess needs structure too. Luckily her school is open to her all summer. They offer what's called an extended school year, with the idea that she will suffer more than the average kid if she takes the summer off. Rather than simply forgetting what six times eight is, she could lose milestones, all the self-feeding and stuff they've worked so hard to teach her. So she's continuing to go to the school. They take a vacation week, and that's when she'll be home with me. My plan is to keep a lot of her school routine in place. Put on her orthotics and walk her around, up and down the driveway. Get down on the floor and sing some songs. Keep up with the potty training.
So, rule one: kids need structure.
Rule two: leave the house. Also duh, right? This is nothing new, but I often forget. My kids gravitate towards being homebodies, with no itinerary. They lull me into thinking of this Swiss Family Robinson existence, where we don't need to leave the house, and we can subsist on just hanging out with each other, doing our thing.
Welp, turns out we aren't Swiss and aren't the Robinsons. If I don't create something to look forward to--a playdate, a trip to the store, there will be hell to pay. I think of it as anchoring my day. Once I have one or two of these pieces in place, then we can plan around it. It can be anything. Hey guys, I'll say, after this, we're gonna drive down and get a car wash. Or hey you two, Grandma Susan is coming over to drop off banana bread in a half hour.
Why does this anchoring thing work? I don't really know. I think it comes down to the idea that at any given time, either kid can look around and say, you know, what I'm doing right now is boring and kind of sucks, but at least I don't have to do it forever. At least I know we're getting a car wash at 2:45.
I know what you're thinking. Why is a car wash interesting to a kid? Good question. Some anchors are fun for the kid, like a playdate, but the vast majority of them aren't. Here's what happens, though. We leave the house. Which is key. Coming back after that is sort of a reboot, you know? Like turning your computer on and off and again. You drive back into your driveway, and you're starting anew.
Maybe they've forgotten that you threatened to sell them all on Craigslist earlier that morning, when they were being assholes. Maybe it doesn't matter anymore that one of them poured a pint of pancake syrup into the basket of laundry you folded after breakfast. It's a clean slate.
So rule two: you must leave the house.
Rule three: plan way ahead with food and laundry. I know I just said kids need structure, and you know, adults need structure too, but let's face it. Summer, by nature, is unpredictable. There are sudden barbecues. Pool invitations. Spontaneous beach trips. Or the flip side--sometimes people just show the hell up at your house. That awesome routine you had going during the school year, when you'd put an outfit on your kids in the morning and they'd wear it all day? And when you could plan a whole week's meals for your family, and make em all ahead of time and serve em up, just like you planned? Yeah, forget that.
My first couple summers at home, I cursed that shit. Had no sense of how to plot my grocery trips or cook anything over the summer. I watched helplessly while pounds of fruit became penicillin in bowls on my counter. My fridge went through an unfortunate cycle: from full, to rotten and gross, to empty. Or we'd be out on the town someplace, and suddenly everyone would be hungry, and I'd have no snacks and no plan.
And as for clothes, I'd bring one backup outfit for Tess, but not two. We'd be out and about, far from home, she'd have an accident, and then a second one, and suddenly I'm fashioning some shorts out of scotch tape and the receipts I can find in the glove compartment.
So here's what I do. For clothes, there's a giant bag. I recommend Sea Bags. Sea as in ocean. They're made in Maine, and they're literally made out of old sails, like from sailboats. So are they waterproof? Yep. They'll survive a trip back from the pool or the beach. Sea Bags. You can find 'em at seabags.com. Get a big honkin' sea bag, and fill it with a few outfits, more than you think you'll go through. Also, in that bag, put the stuff you're gonna potentially need every time you leave the house: sunblock. Bug spray. Bathing suits. A few water bottles, the non-leaky kind, filled up at our sink. Some nonperishable snacks. I go with raisins and almonds, ordered from Nuts.com, mixed up together in a ziploc bag.
And for meals? This is gonna sound kind of vomit, like maybe a little too precious, but hear me out. I got some widemouth mason jars and I make a bunch of mason-jar salads, like three or four at once. Dressing on the bottom, tomatoes and onions on top of that, add whatever afterwards, just make sure the greens stay all the way at the top, not in the dressing. You can get plastic screw-on caps, stick the jars in the fridge, and when you're ready to eat, just shake one up, pour it on your plate, add protein if you want. Super quick, and makeable in batches, which saves a ton of time. No cooking, no need to worry if you end up being out for a meal -- just eat that salad the next day for lunch. They'll keep for a few days without a problem. For the kids, ain't no way they're eating salads. Those are for you. These days Dana is big on beans and rice. I make a ton at once, and he can microwave it whenever he wants. The rotting fruit? Cut it up into pieces and freeze it, as soon as it's ripe. Put it in smoothies, or defrost it overnight to serve to the kids for lunch the next day.
So rule three: plan ahead with clothes and food. Be ready to be spontaneous.
I used to hate summer. The unpredictability. The mood swings of the kids. The fact that it really is a marathon, not a sprint, so you have to pace yourself. Having them home is a blessing, and I'm grateful that I can do it. But it takes a lot of energy. It's like a frickin' endurance sport.
This is the way I do it. Like I said, I don't have everything figured out. On day two of summer, it got toward 8pm and I found myself finally getting the damn breakfast dishes into the dishwasher. But I'm doing my best. I'm trying to get what I need, i.e. enough sleep and calories to keep up with these two crazed kids. And I want to give them what they need. A few weeks ago, Dane and I agreed that this summer would be the summer of chillaxing. Low stress, doing exactly what we want while T is in school, and hanging out with her and having fun when she comes home. I have visions of the boy and me, at the end of August, with deep tans, wide smiles, and flip-flops. He's got the math nailed down, ready for fourth grade, and we both have a long list of the books we read all summer long. I hope it works out.
You may have heard a modified version of this article on my Stronger Every Day podcast.