It’s August in Austin. The heat has escalated to the point that doing anything outside — even if it involves total immersion in water — sounds too hot to handle. The initial euphoria of summer has evaporated like water out of Lake Travis. And all the creative juices that generate ideas for inside fun have dried up, too.
Suddenly, summer isn’t going along so swimmingly anymore. Kids are bored, parents are counting the days until school starts again. But you don’t have to let your summer die a slow, painful death. I don’t care what the song says, there is a cure for the summertime blues, and here’s the formula:
Step One: Don’t Panic.
I don’t know about you, but when my kid tells me she’s bored, my initial reaction is that it’s somehow my fault, and it’s definitely my problem to solve. But summer is not a Disney cruise and I’m not an activities director. Over time, I’ve come to realize this important truth: It’s okay for kids to be bored sometimes, and this is why: If kids are bored and an adult doesn’t rush in and try to entertain them, then kids have the space and time to figure out how to entertain themselves.
A couple of great things come from this: 1. Rather than being spoon fed entertainment by someone or something, kids come up with their own games, projects and ideas to combat their boredom; and 2. Because they’ve solved their own problem, they gain confidence in their ability to navigate imperfect situations that life throws their way. This is good practice for later in life when both they and their problems get bigger. Figuring out how to entertain yourself when you’re a kid is like training wheels for more challenging feats like finding your way out of a funk when you’re older. And knowing that it’s not someone else’s job to make you happy and knowing you can do it yourself, anyway, are key ingredients to a healthy adulthood.
Step Two: Stack the Deck in Everybody’s Favor.
If you want your kids to be able to entertain themselves, make sure you have the building blocks for that readily at hand. What you’ll need, of course, depends on the age and interests of the kids under your roof. If your nine year old announces that she’s bored, you can’t suggest riding her bike to the neighborhood pool if her tires are flat or she can’t find her bike helmet. If your six year old wants you to drop everything and take him to Schlitterbahn, you can’t suggest instead that he design the perfect water park if you don’t have any paper and the markers are all dried up. If your thirteen year old won’t turn off the TV, you can’t recommend she switch gears and curl up with a book if you haven’t been to the library in months.
Example #1: Hannah was bored, so she went flipping through some catalogues that came in the mail. She found a new bedspread she wanted in the Pottery Barn for Teens catalogue, but she didn’t have enough money for it. After an unsuccessful attempt to get me to pay for it, she decided to set up a lemonade stand, a project that kept her busy on and off for weeks until she reached her financial goal.
The example begins with a bored kid and ends with an entertained kid, and along the way there were some challenges for her to puzzle through, some fun experiences, and — I saved the best for last here — significant chunks of kid-free time for me.
Step Three: Don’t Always be the Party of No.
Nothing shuts down the fun factory faster than constantly being met with no — or almost as bad, a yes that comes with a list of conditions or procedures that is so long that by the time you’ve finished covering everything, your kids have gone from bored to comatose. Of course you want your kids to be safe, and you shouldn’t have to spend hours each day rebuilding your house after their tornado of inspiration blew everything to bits. But be careful not to micromanage their projects to the point that they’re not really theirs anymore, or veto ideas simply because you are afraid of the cleanup that might be required.
Example #2: When Hannah asked if she could move out of her bedroom and into the spare bedroom, the first thing that came out of my mouth was no. No, because I liked the way I had put together the spare bedroom; and no, because it sounded like parts of it (like moving the queen sized bed, for example) would require my help.
But then I thought about it for a minute. This was a perfect summer project for her. It would keep her busy for hours — maybe even days. It was safe and fun and involved creativity. So, I green-lighted the project, and she was over the moon. The end product is a room she is really proud of, and that more than makes up for any loss of aesthetic. (And I’m going to keep telling myself that over and over until I really and truly believe it.)
Step Four: Special Missions Encouraged.
Even if your house is well-stocked with building blocks for fun, sometimes a special mission can really add to the adventure. Whether it’s a trip to Hobby Lobby for some special kind of paint or a pop-in at Central Market for a key ingredient, the time and money that you spend on these special missions can yield a great return on your investment.
Example #3 Hannah wanted to make coconut macaroons, and while our pantry was stocked with ingredients to make plenty of other recipes, we didn’t have any shredded coconut. Going to the store for that key ingredient took thirty minutes and a couple of dollars. That was time and money well spent. I got to help Hannah get what she needed execute a fun cooking project. I got a delicious snack out of the deal. And the macaroon project inspired her to try other cooking projects. Triple score.
Step Five: Food for Thought.
While you don’t have to create a detailed schedule for your kids and lead them in activities all day long, giving them a jump start now and then makes good sense. When they tell you they’re bored, don’t respond with, “When you’re a well-adjusted thirty-five year old, you’ll thank me for letting you be bored right now,” (even though it’s true). Instead, help them shake the idea tree a little by asking them questions like, “Are you in the mood to cook something?” or “How about having a water fight with the hose in the backyard?” Don’t be offended if all of your suggestions get vetoed, the idea here is to kick start the brainstorming so they can come up with their own ideas.
And speaking of the power to veto, now may be a good time to tell you about The Rule I adopted at my house: Hannah is free to veto my ideas as long as she offers viable ideas of her own. I don’t expect her to love every suggestion I make, but sitting around being bored and grouchy for extended periods of time is not an option, either. If she doesn’t eventually come up with a workable idea of her own, I reserve the right to go with one of mine. So, if she’s not in the mood to beat the heat by spending the afternoon at the Blanton Museum of Art, she needs to pitch something else.
To help avoid needing to invoke The Rule, here’s a little trick. Take a look at the following list (or make one of your own) and try to do one thing off the list each day, with the goal being to work through the entire list before summer is over:
- Make juice popsicles in paper cups.
- Have a water balloon fight in the front yard.
- Eat dinner outside.
- Go to a pool you’ve never been to before.
- Get snow cones at your favorite snow cone stand.
- Go to the Summer Musical at Zilker Park
- Make ice cream. Don’t have an ice cream maker? See Idea #10.
- Make your own water park in the backyard with a hose and sprinkler.
- Go see an IMAX movie. Too expensive? See Idea #10.
- Set up a lemonade stand.
- Make a simple picnic and go eat lunch at the park.
- Make a fort inside with sheets.
- Try a new recipe.
- Make a “cool” dinner where nothing is cooked. (Salad, pimento cheese sandwiches, watermelon soup, gazpacho, ice cream, etc.)
- Go for a walk around your neighborhood after dinner when it’s getting dark.
- Cook outside on the grill. Don’t have a grill? See Item #10.
- Have a Family Film Series where one night each week a different member of the family picks the film.
- Buy a real coconut and let your kids figure out how to crack it open outside.
Don’t let August be the month of grumpiness. Make happy, fun and yes, even a little bored now and then, stretch all the way through when school starts up again. Then and only then should your family let its inner grouches out. Because after all, when it comes to going back to school, grouchy is perfectly in season.