It happens every year. Sometime in early February, I find in my inbox the first of many messages about summer camps. The well meaning emails from other moms share similar agendas--weeks of sports, tinkering, drama, nature, and sleep-away camps that my twins' classmates will be attending when school's out for the summer. Typically, I feel miserably behind and hastily register my boys for loads of fun-filled enrichment before rosters fill. But this year, I remember how exhausted my then seven-year-olds were at the end of last summer's camp weeks, and I wonder if I've been doing them more harm than good. Am I overscheduling my kids? Maybe we could all use a little breather this summer. Since I'm no expert on the topic, I called Jean McPhee, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist, for some advice.
"Parents have good intentions when they sign their kids up for summer camps," she reassured me. "But, think how you--an adult--feel when you are over-committed and over-scheduled. You feel stressed. Children have far fewer coping resources and less resilience than we do, yet they, too, can easily be stressed and negatively impacted by an overload of planned activities. They may not be able to say it, but they need down time, too."
We sign our kids up for summer camps not only for the childcare, but also because the experience is enjoyable, keeps them active and creative, and because structured activities with other kids foster social skills and independence. So how do we know if we've gone overboard, creating a schedule of opportunity that is out of balance for our kids? Ask yourself these 7 questions to find out:
• Is my child more irritable or emotionally needy?
• Does he or she have time to play with friends, the dog, or their sibling?
• Am I tired or stressed by their schedule?
• Am I spending more time in the car than anyplace else?
• Is our family able to have meals together?
• Is my child not excited to go to the activities they once liked?
• Is my child exhausted?
If you've answered yes to most of the questions, chances are your kids could use a break. If you're worried about them missing out, consider that the negative effects associated with over-scheduling are far greater than those of under-scheduling. Kids love unstructured moments--like hanging out in their PJs and helping mom make breakfast--which typically only happen on weekends and holidays. Summer provides an opportunity for those moments. It also gives kids a chance to become more proficient in essential life skills, such as self-sufficiency and self-direction, and gives them freedom to try and fail without judgment and even just play or create without a product or outcome in mind.
I admit that the highly productive free time Dr. McPhee recommends was a bit tough for my kids the first few weeks of summer. They were bored and at times had a hard time entertaining themselves after being used to structured activities and instruction during the school year. Dr. McPhee says parents can make the transition easier on kids (and their parents and caregivers) by providing suggestions of what to do with their new free time. Together with your child, write down ideas for fun activities--an outdoor scavenger hunt or quiet time with a favorite book, for instance. That way, you'll have a go-to idea bank at your disposal. These ideas become the perfect antidote for the whining that often results from boredom.
Dr. McPhee says summer is also a great opportunity to create balance by offering kids new activities for a short duration--maybe a one-day workshop instead of a week of full immersion that may be too much for their growing brains and bodies to handle. "Let them try being an actor, a circus star, an artist or a golfer," she says. "How about a poet, hockey player, dancer or computer programmer?"
Before committing to any activity or camp, learn as much as you can about the time involved, know who will be leading the activities, and what the kids will actually be doing. Get feedback from other parents whose kids have attended, so you know what to expect and can gauge how much your own kid will benefit.
If you didn't get the balancing act quite right this summer, cut yourself (and your kids) some slack. You have another chance to get it right with back-to-school activities--soccer practice and piano lessons--that should start appearing in your inbox right about... now.