When I was a kid, summer was freedom.
My family occasionally took a vacation to some nearby destination, like San Diego or Pismo Beach, but for the most part, we were left to our own devices, told to “just go play” or take a dip in the backyard pool.
We raced each other into the house, our hair waterlogged and our skin bronzed or maybe a little burned. We dropped our towels on the floor and stood with arms spread wide in front of the swamp cooler until our goose-bumped bodies could take no more.
My brother and I weren’t “free-range” children, by any means, but we were carefree and even a little bored every now and then.
There were homemade popsicles and unprofitable lemonade stands; there was digging for rocks in the bottom of the creek bed; there was riding the tire swing like there was nothing more important in the world.
And, in truth, there wasn’t.
Summer revolved around the most unimportant things imaginable, but they were everything to us. What made my childhood summers so memorable was that they truly felt like time off from the real world, like a vacation not only from school but also a reprieve from constant activities and the watchful eye of my parents.
When I had my own kids, I tried to replicate that feeling of freedom that comes with warm weather and no homework, but I wasn’t terribly successful.
I organized playdates and arranged to meet friends at the public pool—but only on Fridays because the other days of the week the kids attended music class or science camp. I greased up my three girls with sunscreen and watched them play in the sandbox for thirty minutes—but then remembered they had ballet or karate or swim lessons. Playtime was over.
As a modern-day mom, this was “freedom” for my kids: I provided them with minuscule pockets of playtime, but I master-minded nearly every moment. We were all exhausted by the time school started in August.
So, as modern parents who have a lot to juggle and multi-task, how can we strike a balance between the nonchalant “just-be-home-for-dinner” attitude many of our own parents employed and the micro-management some of us tend toward now? And if our kids are so used to our over-parenting, how can we raise an independent child that can enjoy a summer of creativity and curiosity, without them whining “I’m bored” all the time?
As the mother of three daughters between the ages of 10 and 14, I have realized that over-calendaring my kids’ summers is keeping them from learning how to manage their own lives. While I can’t completely eliminate all scheduled activities, I can give them more freedom—which might look a little different than it did back in the 70s when I was growing up.
My kids are old enough now that I no longer think of parenting as “raising children” but as “raising adults,” and I try to take every chance I can get to help them navigate that path to maturity and give them the gift of independence. Here are some ideas for you this summer.
1. Give Them the Calendar
I don’t know about you, but our summer family calendar begins filling up the winter beforehand. In December, I write the check for two of my daughters to attend sleep-away camp, so that week gets blocked off early on.
This camp is non-negotiable, and the freedom they feel when they wave goodbye is well worth the cost and time. New or riskier experiences like sea kayaking and archery are a bit scary, but my girls come home beaming with pride for their newfound skills.
But other than that? We try to keep our calendar a bit less busy than it used to be to accommodate spur-of-the-moment mini-vacations or time with friends.
One way to help kids develop independence during the summer is to hand them the calendar. You’d be amazed at what they come up with. Sometimes my daughters express interest in having friends over to swim or visiting local sites like museums or parks, but they are also becoming very attuned to their own needs. Occasionally one of them will notice that too much social time leaves her tired, so she’ll block off a few days of rest after a busy week of gatherings.
Summer doesn’t have to be all impromptu and unscheduled in order to foster independence. But giving your child the freedom to choose the most fulfilling activities builds self-confidence.
2. Give Them Your Phone
I don’t mean you should give your kids your phone so they can play on it! Devices have their place in the summertime, but technology can become a crutch—and even an addiction—if used in place of other activities.
Instead, give them your phone so they can become their own schedulers.
When my girls were little, I contacted other moms to find out the availability and interest of their daughters. I recall one time booking a meet-up at the park only to have one of my girls throw a fit when she looked out the window and saw where we were! I hadn’t given her a heads-up, so she was sulky and cranky the entire time. That was not a fun playdate!
My girls always use an overabundance of emojis in the text messages they send, but allowing them to plan their own playdates has taught them many lessons, like compromise and the value of time. They learn that they might not be able to go to the park if the movie gets out too late, and they learn how to communicate with adults in their lives.
3. Give Them a Map
We don’t take a family vacation every year, but this summer we saved up to travel to Italy. Our kids have never been outside the country before, so we wanted to include them in our choice of location. We pulled up videos and pictures of various places we could afford to travel to or destinations deemed safe, and then we encouraged the kids to figure out the top two places they wanted to visit.
Turns out that all of us had listed Italy and Ireland at the top of our lists—except our youngest daughter who really wanted to visit Madagascar. We admired her adventurous spirit, but she ultimately realized that gelato was more enticing than wild animals!
By including our kids in our vacation choice, we knew they would have more interest in learning about that culture. We gave them maps of the country and asked them about topics they were studying in school that might provide inspiration.
Our youngest said she couldn’t imagine Italy without the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and our other two girls were interested in ancient Rome, the countryside of Italy, and lots of pasta. They expressed concern about not knowing the language, so we signed up the family for a conversational Italian class.
On a smaller scale, when we have a free weekend, we let the girls check maps to see what neat “treasures” they might find in the general vicinity. Even in your own hometown, kids can create a scavenger hunt of locations or search for historical landmarks.
4. Give Them Choices
Sometimes teaching independence is as simple as giving kids choices. Do they want to ride bikes to the library or walk the dog to the creek? Do they want to learn something new that week or revisit old interests, like finishing up a painting?
When I queried my girls about what some of their best summer memories were, the one thing they all mentioned was the daily “to-do” list that requires them to do something focusing on their head, heart, hands, or health. I was a long-time 4-Her, so this might sound familiar if you know the 4-H motto!
Beyond those guidelines, they had to make decisions about what to do for each activity, so for “head” they might research a scientific topic they’re interested in or for “heart” they might send a greeting card to someone they loved.
Providing some minimal structure and offering choices instead of telling kids to “just stay busy” will not only put the ball in their court but might encourage creativity.
5. Give Them a Goal
Wow. Summer freedom and goals? Those don’t seem to go together, but this article isn’t about how summer is the ideal time to do nothing and let kids get bored. It’s about how to raise an independent child. And having kids start the summer with a goal in mind is a great way to keep the summer from slipping by too quickly.
My oldest daughter was given the opportunity this past spring break to travel with classmates to the East Coast on a fast-paced, educational tour. We knew the trip would be expensive, so our daughter set a goal to help out with the cost.
Her target was to earn $300 before summer’s end—a fairly lofty goal for a 13-year-old with no source of income, but one we knew she could accomplish if she began planning in advance. In May, she created fliers to pass out in the neighborhood that advertised her services: dog-walking, house-sitting, pet-sitting, and yardwork. She also canvassed the neighborhood for odd jobs that could be done. In just a few months, our daughter earned nearly $500, and she was able to pay for a substantial portion of her trip.
While there are so many other academic goals for kids to worry about during the school year, summer is the perfect time to teach them the value of setting personal goals, like earning money toward an experience.
In the future, we imagine our girls will want to visit college campuses over summer, and we hope they will set goals for those trips. Whatever their interests, setting goals can give them something to aim for, and being motivated to achieve your goals is an important part of growing up.
6. Give Them Chores
Chores are character-building. Chores teach responsibility. Chores are one of the best ways to foster independence. If we do everything for our children all the time, they might not know how to be self-reliant. And some even argue that having your kids do chores shows them that you love them.
In a previous article I wrote for A Fine Parent titled How to Create a Chore Schedule That Actually Works, I mentioned that our family’s chore system worked very well for us because it was simple and easy for our girls to remember. It is even more important during summertime that you keep kids’ chores uncomplicated because there isn’t the same built-in routine that the school year brings.
During summer, we often ask our daughters to help with gardening and weeding outside before they ride bikes or play. And while it might seem scary at first (perhaps more to parents than kids!), teaching them skills like lawn-mowing or hedge-trimming will build their confidence and show them that you believe in their abilities. Granted, it might take twice as long to teach them to mow the lawn than if you just did it yourself, but you will appreciate the extra effort when one day they can do it on their own.
7. Give Them Resources
In our front entry, we have an enormous antique cabinet that I keep stocked to near-exploding with craft supplies, paints and brushes, all sorts of drawing and construction papers, and fun things like clay, playdough, blank canvases, and more. If you peeked inside, you might call it the Cabinet of Curiosities, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Not all of our girls are artistic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like to be creative. Summer is the perfect time for messes too, so I will often set up an easel on the patio and encourage the girls to paint me a picture. Sometimes, they make slime or hold puppet shows with socks they’ve turned into puppets. If they can imagine it, we probably have a supply of craft materials for them to make it, and art is a great way to engage their brain without them even realizing it.
The same concept can be applied to other resources. Print out a few easy-to-make recipes that don’t require cooking, like energy bites or granola bars, and put all the ingredients on a tray so kids have easy access to them. Dump a pile of old blankets and sheets in the middle of the room and challenge them to build the best blanket fort they can. There are so many wonderful ideas for crafts and activities on Pinterest and on the internet, and showing them how to find those ideas themselves is a great way to encourage independence.
8. Give Them Reasons to Help
What better time of year to encourage your kids to help others than when they finally have a few more hours on their hands. We usually think of June, July, and August as our “down-time,” our months of relaxation and vacation from real life, but we can instead use those months to get kids thinking about the fact that some people’s “real lives” are challenging and filled with misfortune.
Up above, I’ve written about kids doing chores and setting goals over summer, so perhaps your child can set a goal of donating one-third of his allowance to a good cause. Or perhaps your daughter can donate some time to a local animal shelter.
In our town, the homeless refuge is open to residents only during the coldest, rainiest months of the year, but we point out to our kids that just because the weather is nice, that doesn’t mean that everyone has a full belly or a safe place to sleep at night.
Check your region to see if there are opportunities to volunteer over the summer—either to organizations that help people or those that help the environment, like creek or park clean-up days. And an added perk is that this is an activity the whole family can participate in!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Figuring out how to raise an independent child isn’t as hard at it seems. Teaching kids to become self-reliant and independent is a gift that will keep on giving—even into their adulthood when you are no longer there to guide their lives. Ask yourself these questions to see whether you’re ready to hand over a portion of your summer to your son or daughter:
- What activities are already penciled-in on your summer calendar, and how can you pass on some of the responsibility of these activities to your children? Can they help plan parts of a summer vacation?
- What parts of your summer calendar are currently empty? Can you pass on the planning of those days to your older kids? How much assistance will you offer them?
- How often do your kids have the time to complain that they are bored? What are some of the things you can do (or rather, not do) to allow them the space to be creative with their time?
- How are vacations decided in your family? What are some of the ways you can involve your kids in the vacation planning?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Here are some great ideas on how to raise an independent child and build their confidence as they grow.
FIRST SUMMER: INDEPENDENCE IS FUN! So kids don’t feel abandoned or frustrated when you ask them to make their own choices over summer, make sure that the activities or events they plan are fun for everyone. Choosing between Disneyland or Legoland is way more fun than learning how to balance a checkbook or helping someone pick weeds, but both are still important independence-building activities. Keeping it fun when kids are younger will allow them to build their confidence.
SECOND SUMMER: INDEPENDENCE IS FASCINATING! Use your second summer to encourage kids to branch out on their own. This summer, they can learn a new skill or embark on a new hobby. During the school year, kids aren’t always given the opportunity to study the subjects they’re truly interested in, so make summer fascinating for your kids by letting their curiosity guide them.
THIRD SUMMER: INDEPENDENCE IS FREEDOM! This summer your child will be used to having some say in how he spends his time. But go one step further and allow him some freedom to make choices that don’t involve the family. My inclination is to cling tightly to my three girls because I know they will leave home soon, but there will come a time when I am a phone call away instead of in the room next door. This is the summer to encourage kids to go to sleepaway camp, to have sleepovers at friends’ houses, and to plan activities that get them out on their own where they can put into practice the self-reliance lessons they’ve learned.
FOURTH SUMMER: INDEPENDENCE IS FOREVER! Use this summer to encourage kids to learn about potential college campuses, future job possibilities, independent cooking skills, financial literacy, and more! Learning how to be independent is an ongoing lesson for kids, but once they get a feel for how to navigate their free time without you over-scheduling and once you realize they can make good choices, that ability to take care of themselves will last a lifetime.