June marks the summer migration back into the family nest of our near and far-flung children, from preschoolers to college students. We rejoice at the release of our younger kids from the tyranny of school’s regimentation, of after-school activities and late-night homework. Our mornings will be freed of breathless, beat-the-clock relays to get the kids up, fed, equipped with assignments, music and sports gear and catapulted out to school on time. We heave a sigh of relief as our college kids return home, ending our long-distance futile fretting about their exercising academic, social and recreational self-responsibility. Another long, hard academic cycle behind us, it’s the season to bask in the warmth of family togetherness.
Uh huh - you know what’s coming: “Everyone who thinks their summer will be as peaceful and restorative as they expect, indeed, NEED it to be, take a giant step forward – not so fast parents!” We’re suckers every year for this buzz-kill to our gauzy daydreams of harmonious family unity. What happens? Four days into the new normal, our nest is soiled by sullen attitudes, mountains of laundry, lounging “I’ll do it later” slug-a-beds and encrusted plates in the most unlikely places. (Really? The bathtub rim?) And the expanded independence of our returning college kids defies our reflexive parental need for control.
Before outlining rules for surviving the cluttered summer nest syndrome, it’s crucial to recognize that the perfect order you long for can never be attained; not this summer, and frankly, while we’re at it, not ever. (You might as well confront this truth once now, rather than suffer a thousand despairing rediscoveries of this reality.) Reasonable order is, however, a fair standard to expect in your house, as long as its pursuit does not trump the importance of loving kindness among family members.
WITH YOUR YOUNGER KIDS
1) Have a family discussion about basic household expectations, so you don’t sabotage yourself from the start by assuming your kids understand what you didn’t spell out. It’s not fair to bust your kids for failing to do what you never made explicit. Get concrete about self-care responsibilities (like laundry, shoes, toys) and communal tasks (like household chores, yard care, pet-care, meals). (It should go without saying that it’s unnecessary to include strictures like “Perhaps you could go to the trouble of closing the refrigerator door when you’re done grazing;” or “You can go ahead and flush when you’re done rather than leaving it for someone else to have as a special honor…(!)”)
2) Kids really are responsive when we give voice to our needs, in an earnest, straightforward way. They forget that we don’t exist exclusively to serve them (or to annoy them, as our teens might assume). Hence, for example, they might be more responsive if, instead of just unilaterally assigning tasks, we disclose “I have to say, it really feels crummy to me when I make dinner, then you all scatter as though it’s ok to leave me stuck with the clean-up. I’ve got things I want to go do with my free time too, just like you all. I really need you guys to step up and take over the clean up- or the cooking- one or the other.” Rotating responsibilities assures equitability, if you are that rare family that has a “certain” kid, (or indeed parent,) who seems to dedicate more energy to dodging rather than doing his or her fair share.
3) Convey to your kids that their lack of cooperation will come at a cost to their peace – you will become a nagging, agitating, toxic, insufferable parent. (I can hear my kids correcting me on this one: “What do you mean, Mom, become a nagging, agitating, toxic insufferable parent?!”)
4) Express genuine and generous appreciation when you catch your kids doing what you’ve asked them to do. To the objection: “Why should I commend them for doing what’s expected?” I offer the behavioral caveat that kids, like grown-ups and dogs, are rewarded by attention of any kind. They will engage in more of whatever behavior elicits the strongest reaction. Hence the statement: “Why am I not surprised?! Once again you failed to take out the garbage!” is perversely reinforcing of Suzie’s not taking out the garbage next time, while: “I was so happy to see you’d already taken out the garbage when I drove in this afternoon- thanks so much” prompts Suzie to want to repeat the gesture in the future. Furthermore, another given, in the realm of interpersonal interactions, is that pissy attitudes tend to beget pissy responses, while gracious demeanor begets gracious responses. (Teens excepted.)
5) Combat Summer Brain-Rot Syndrome caused by screen-time overdose, by setting limits and enlisting your kids to join the Montclair Public Library’s summer reading incentive program. Take advantage of other community activities listed here in Montclair.Patch.com.
WITH YOUR COLLEGE STUDENTS
1) Prepare yourself for a “re-entry” adjustment for you and your college kids, made trickier by their having evolved in our absence all year, in ways we don’t yet know. Consider how difficult it is for them to be squeezed back into the tight confines of the family nest, when they’d been flying free every waking moment these past nine months.
2) Find time to sit down with your college kids to talk over the summer in a companionable, collaborative way. Tell them you appreciate how hard it is for them to return back home. Much as you’re thrilled to have them home, you know you “cramp their style” with family demands. Invite them to talk openly with you about how they’d like their summer to go, and how that can interface with the functioning needs of the family, including curfews, family car privileges, household responsibilities, and communicating to spare reflexive parental worry.
3) Take time to learn and appreciate how your college students have indeed grown more autonomous, more capable, more uniquely “ themselves.” Adapt your approach to them accordingly. (You know how it drives you nuts when your parents treat you like you’re in elementary school.)
WITH ALL YOUR CHILDREN, YOUNG AND OLD
Grab time early on in the summer to generate plans for the fun stuff of the season. What would each child not want the summer to lapse without having enjoyed? Six Flags? Biking? Family Game Night? Whitewater rafting? The beach? The Yankees? The Water Park? A Folk Festival? House of Mormon? Hiking the Appalachian Trail? Commit given days on the summer calendar to those special adventures.
Once a week, at least, hang out with each child in a one-to-one, non-multi-tasking way (phone off), that is attuned to their mode of relaxing or playing. With littler kids, play board games, read, do art together, shoot hoops, kick the soccer ball, and be their dedicated play-date, following their lead. Nothing endears kids more to their parents than when they play with them their way. With older kids, lounge with them, ask them to enlighten you about their favorite music, be a calm available presence to share their company, and perhaps give way to deeply meaningful discussions. (Do NOT interrogate; that drives kids into their shells.)
Perhaps come early September, with these few guidelines, you won’t despair for not having seized the moments for the best of what this summer has to offer –basking in the warmth of family closeness.
Do you have some tricks to surviving summer 's chaos? Please pass it on in your comment!
Also, do you have a parenting dilemma you would like addressed here? Note it in your comment.