About this time every year, moms roll into therapy sessions with a mix of exhaustion and panic on their faces. “Summer is halfway through, and we haven’t done half the things we wanted to!” While they describe feeling very busy and overwhelmed with summer parenting tasks, they also feel guilty for not creating all those magical moments. This…is an impossible expectation that contributes to feeling like a parenting failure. And feeling like a parenting failure doesn’t help anyone.
In order to develop a summer parenting survival guide, we must first understand and the challenge at hand.
Let’s be real. Parenting in the summer is like moving up to the next level of challenge in a video game. Once your kids are into the school years, you have a regular routine and predictable breaks from parenting from September through May. You feel the peace of knowing your kids are in school doing stuff that is good for them cognitively and socially for a few hours a day. But once summer hits, the pressure on parents to fill the hours with healthy, enriching, safe activities can feel overwhelming.
One potential parenting solution for the summer involves signing kids up for summer camps. But this process is not for the faint of heart. It usually begins in the frigid months of winter to assure your child a spot in the favorite nature, art, or athletic camp of their choice. It may require signing on early to websites like you’re trying to get the best tickets to the hottest concert. And it may require complicated coordination with multiple kids’ schedules or friends who help with carpools. You also can’t fill the summer schedule too early because new camp opportunities get posted throughout the spring. It’s a delicate balance of scheduling kids for some structured activities while leaving free time in the summer. Their needs and ability to manage free time changes from year to year.
While summer camp may sound like a great substitute for school, it often requires weekly management of the carpool plans. Sunday evenings are spent pouring over the family schedule and sending texts to friends and family in order to get kids where they need to be on time each day. And this doesn’t even include packing the necessary items for each day’s activities for each child. The checklist for a half-day art camp is gonna be different than a full-day zoo camp. And that doesn’t even include the weekly “water day” at each camp with the extra squirters, towels, swimsuits, etc. Make the list and check it twice!
Summer also comes with the unseen pressure to have lots of FUN. There’s a fantasy that summer days are spent enjoying sunshine, water games, popsicles, all the summer activities. Parents are expected to create magical moments and plan lots of outings. One trip to the pool or the beach comes with a series of challenges from getting everyone dressed to sunscreen to packing drinks and snacks to reapplying sunscreen to cleanup. The effort can certainly feel worth it now and then. But it’s important to acknowledge that these outings come with a great deal of work i.e., a bucket of sand dumped in the trunk.
This pressure is magnified when you dare to scroll through social media and see what all your friends and neighbors are doing each day. We see photos of smiling families at the ball game, on the boat, taking vacations and feel our own life comes up short. We may feel guilty that our kids don’t have all the same experiences because we are working or juggling responsibilities or following a budget.
Then there’s the extra long days and endless messes to contend with. The sun keeps shining well past the hour you’re ready to get off the clock and have kids tucked in beds. It can be difficult to maintain a regular routine of bedtimes and wake times with the sunshine beaming into children’s rooms at 5am. And all these people in the house all day leave dishes, trash, towels, and socks everywhere. It can feel like the house never gets fully picked up and clean.
The summer parenting challenge changes when your children are in the tween years and have aged out of most camps without being old enough be left alone or have a job. Each kid’s ability to manage their time and independence varies. Sometimes they can shift to volunteering as helpers at the camps or other local programs. This too usually requires carpool planning. Their need for supervision doesn’t disappear even though they feel too old to have a babysitter. It can take some trial and error to allow them some freedoms with frequent check ins as you determine how much independence they can really manage.
I’m happy to pass along some survival tips collected from many mothers who have braved this season many times over in hopes it could make this summer parenting experience feel less stressful and more enjoyable.
Summer Parenting Survival Tips:
- Stick to a general routine of sleep and wake times.
- Get help from family, friends, and sitters.
- Protect quiet days for rest and recovery, including allowing some screen time.
- Plan a couple of the “must do” outings into the summer schedule before it fills up.
- Give kids the gift of boredom.
- Use blackout curtains and eye masks for those long days of sunshine.
- Curb your use of social media to avoid social comparisons.
- Enjoy a few late nights with the knowledge that the next morning might be rough but worth it.
- Create opportunities to be alone and replenish.
- Make certain you’re feeding yourself decent food a few times during the day.
- Let kids be responsible for age-appropriate chores, like filling their water bottles and packing bags for the day.
- Give yourself permission to put kids to bed without baths or brushed teeth some nights.
- Make notes about what worked well this summer and what you’d like to change for next summer.
All of these strategies can help us navigate summer parenting with a bit more grace. But the real antidote to feeling like a parenting failure is to make two major shifts. First, accept that a lot of summer parenting is stressful. Second, marinate in the meaningful, joyful moments as they arise. When we learn to adjust our expectations and appreciate our realities, we find greater satisfaction in our lives. It also doesn’t hurt to find a little humor in the experience and share it with friends.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation for an appointment with Dr. Smith, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact form.