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Challenge: Summer Fun

Reclaiming the Lazy Summer: 3 myths that hold us back from a true vacation

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Ice-cream dripping down their chins? Absolutely. Pruney fingers from the swimming pool? Sure. An endless parade of pricey summer camps, fab family vacations and Pinterest-worthy activities? Really? Families all over the country are deep in the middle of an action-packed summer “vacation.” But in the midst of ballet camp, late nights and adorable summer treats that took all afternoon, we’re all left wondering, just when do we get to experience the return of the lazy summer? And is the lazy summer even a good thing?

We love our kids and want the best, whether school’s in session or not. But nowadays summer vacation is anything but a break, and weary, involved parents everywhere could use a hammock and a cold drink. In fact, when the TODAY Parenting Team asked parents how to have the "best summer ever," we got hundreds of responses, most remarking on the importance of embracing imperfection, simplifying schedules, ditching the "bucket list" and just trying to enjoy a laid-back lifestyle. Moms, who often overstress about making summer magical for their kids, are starting to realize that the most enjoyable moments happen when we back off. And all of us are getting nostalgic for the hands-off parenting we remember from our youth. In fact, Jenna Bush Hager has made it her personal goal to reclaim summer — check out her blog to see her take.

It’s so easy to fall into the overscheduled summer trap—we want our kids to keep up with their skills and get some positive new experiences. We want to make lots of amazing family memories. Plus, there’s something we all fear even more than mosquito bites and sunburn: boredom. But there’s good news. According to researchers, a lazy summer might be what we all need more than anything, and there’s never been a better time to let go of a few common myths that rain on your parade (or pool party) when it comes to the relaxation you’ve been craving. Read on to see why downtime is good for all ages—and boredom may be your kids’ new best friend.

Myth #1: We’re responsible for our kids’ happiness.

The truth? Kids are not entitled to happiness. But they would love for you to believe otherwise, and that’s why we hear so much whining about the cool new video game or the unsupervised beach trip they’re missing out on. While it’s certainly important to plan for some summer fun, there’s no need for kids to be entertained by a parent or a screen every second. What’s more, our kids need to learn that only they are responsible for their own happiness, and that it’s okay if things aren’t perfect all the time. In fact, when kids always get a path steamrolled to happiness by a caring parent, they never learn to handle their own setbacks and take charge of their own lives. If they learn that their happiness is a parent’s top priority, it’ll set the stage for an expectation of happiness that no person or situation can ever live up to down the road. And that’s a depressing thought!

Next time your calendar shows a free day, fight the urge to make Pinterest-worthy popsicles, sign up for more programs or make over-the-top plans. Instead, kick back and relax while the kids make their own fun — without screens. Spend some quality time with each child one-on-one, but then let them be. You’ll send the message that while you love spending time with them, you don’t exist to entertain, and you’re confident they can have a great time without you leading the way. With practice, as well as a bedsheet, garden hose and/or giant roll of duct tape, they’ll soon find that the possibilities are endless when it comes to summer fun—no parent, or electricity, required.

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Myth #2: Growing brains and bodies need lots of structure and stimulation to boost creativity.

While the robotics camp looks really cool—and very well may be — kids actually do a much better job of developing thinking skills like planning, problem solving and decision making outside of structured activities, according to research from the University of Colorado, Boulder. The researchers also discovered that as kids spend more time with less structure, they become more self-directed. What’s more, when play is overly controlled by adults, whether at home or in activities, kids often follow along with the adult’s expectations and creativity while skills like leadership and group dynamics suffer. After a while, over-scheduled kids may show less initiative and not know what to do with their limited free time, simply because they’re not used to it. They can think of no other options than to complain “I’m bored!” or turn to the media for constant entertainment.

But boredom can be a good thing: it allows youngsters plenty of opportunity to find new activities, and also be responsible for their own happiness. Your job is to simply take it in stride, and let your kids know in advance, “You’re really growing up, and I know you can handle your own free time. You’ve got one hour of media time a day, and when that’s done, I expect you to find other activities to do. If you need help thinking of something, I’ll be happy to offer suggestions, including a few things you can do to help around the house.” Remember that staring off into space while dangling upside down from the sofa counts as an activity—whether they’re thinking deep thoughts about the future of space travel, trying to decide their favorite Ninja Turtle, or rehashing the book they just finished, it’s valuable downtime.

Myth #3: It’s okay to let bedtime go — after all, summer is supposed to be fun!

While late bedtimes might be fun for a week, the rest of the summer can go by in a haze of sleep deprivation. In fact, many kids are more sleep deprived in the summer than during the school year because they’re getting up at the crack of dawn to get to camp or activities on time, they’re busy and active all day with no downtime, and then they’re allowed to stay up late on a relaxed bedtime. The end result is a child who is exhausted, cranky and not that much fun to be around. While it’s okay to let kids stay up with the sun, keeping lights-out time consistent throughout the summer will help kids know what to expect and get the sleep they need. So, if you bump bedtime back an hour, that’s okay — just make sure the new bedtime stands firm every night.

Once you’ve debunked the over-scheduled summer in your house, you’ll finally get to enjoy the laid-back vacation you’ve been craving. And even better, so will your kids. For more ideas to save your sanity this summer, check out these tips.

Amy McCready's new book is "The 'Me, Me, Me' Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World." Learn more at AmyMcCready.com.

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