By: Holly Vanderhaar
Summer is well and truly upon us, and while I’m tempted to dwell on all the petty and not-so-petty annoyances that seem to be hovering around us like a cloud of mosquitoes lately, I’m making a conscious effort to set that aside tonight, and focus on the season. It was a sultry 94 degrees today, a humid remnant of spectacular overnight storms (sidebar: nothing brings the kids and the cats to one’s bed like a 4 a.m. lightning and thunder extravaganza). June’s more than half over. The girls have been out of school for almost two weeks (and they’re already getting on each other’s nerves). So—annoyances aside—the only thing on my mind tonight is summer.
I have a complicated relationship with summer. I grew up in the Phoenix area, and summer in the desert Southwest is closer to winter in the upper Midwest than you might think. It’s that five-month period during the year when you don’t go outside unless you have to, and you grouse about it the whole time. I haven’t exactly been heat-tolerant since I was a kid, and every year it got worse. My favorite time of year in Phoenix was when the citrus trees were blooming and the air was rich with their scent. After I became a mom and developed the habit—perforce—of rising early, I would savor the cool, perfumed pre-dawn hours, but underneath that pleasure lurked a sense of looming dread. If the orange blossoms were here, triple-digit temps were not far behind, and it would be Halloween before they let up. Those summertime traditions I learned about from watching television—barbecues, picnics, lazy afternoons under shady backyard trees, bike rides—seemed like part of a fairytale world. When we moved to Minnesota five years ago, I finally got to enjoy that mythical summer lifestyle. Oh, I paid for it the following winter, but I still treasure those days like an unexpected gift.
But here’s the difference between my daughters’ experience of summer and my experience of summer. When I was their age, the summers were long, lazy affairs. I had occasional sleepovers with friends, and we always took a road trip to visit grandparents, but apart from that, summers weren’t scheduled. They weren’t planned down to the last day. They stretched out, three long months of unstructured free time, with pockets of boredom, long hours at the library, and plenty of TV. Part of that was made possible because my mom didn’t work until I was old enough to stay home alone. My daughters have an itinerary of cobbled-together day camps, summer programs, violin lessons, and “stay out of my hair because I’m working at home today” days. On the days that they aren’t going somewhere, there’s the Wii, or the DS. I believe that it’s in boredom that kids develop creativity and self-reliance, and I worry that they—not just my kids, but kids today–don’t encounter boredom often enough. I worry that the only thing that makes their summer lazy is the lack of homework, because that’s really the only difference. Part of that is the reality of 21st century life; even in a two-parent household, it’s much less common to find one parent who’s able to stay at home full time. But I think part of it is our compulsion to fill our kids’ lives with the cornucopia of enrichment experiences at every turn. Are we doing them a disservice by depriving them of empty days? Are they losing the ability to entertain themselves? What do you think?