I don’t know what your family is like, but the first day of summer vacation at our house usually involves fighting before 7 a.m., dirty dishes and half-eaten culinary experiments in every room of the house by 11 a.m., and several “get-off-your-screen/but-Mom-it’s-educational” conversations by 1 p.m. The art of asking annoying questions has been perfected by dinnertime.
Really, it’s quite impressive what we can get done in a day.
After about three days of this, measures are taken to keep the crazy at minimal levels. Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies to that end — here are a few of them.
The Chore Draft
Chores are a big part of summer routine at our house because (a) the kids have a lot of time on their hands and (b) there is a lot of work to be done — it’s a perfect match. It’s also a season when, in theory, I have a little more time and patience to teach (or re-teach) them how to do things like clean the bathroom or tidy up the kitchen.
Every summer, we hold a chore draft to determine who gets what chores. It runs a little like the NFL draft where we take turns picking from a pool of chores that have been grouped by length or difficulty. Big chores — like doing the laundry — sometimes gets broken down into smaller parts — like sorting into piles or folding. Chores like weeding, which no one likes, get divided up into small sections so everyone only does a little bit.
The concept: By listing all of the chores that need to be done and breaking them into equal or do-able parts, kids learn how to do housework, practice responsibility and contribute to the family. Choosing their chores lets them focus on tasks they enjoy more (or hate less) and increases ownership of the work. And, you have a perfectly clean house for the summer months.
The reality: Houses that are lived in are not clean. And houses that are cleaned by children are only going to be so clean. But that is not necessarily the point. The point is that your children are occupied, they are learning important skills and the bathroom is not as gross as it would be otherwise.
Points and Rewards System
We can call it “encouraging positive behavior” or we can call it “bribery,” either way, this is one of the more useful items in the parenting toolbox. Anything you want your kids to do? Connect it with a reward and — tadaah! It happens. Well, kind of. Sometimes.
Chores are natural reward-earners, but you can add other things you might want to encourage, like helping others with their chores or doing learning activities — you can even add those that already have built-in rewards, like playing a board game together or working on something creative.
The concept: There are a hundred good ways to earn rewards in a way that’s specific and yet doesn’t require a lottery win and full-time administrator. Some kind of point system gives both immediacy and the sense of working towards something. But the real secret is to pick desired rewards: toddlers don’t care about money and teenagers don’t want to go to the park with you.
The reality: Reward systems are exciting for two or three weeks, gamely followed for another few and after that it’s just a free-for-all. Which is the exact flow of summer, so it works. Reward systems aren’t magical, but at least everyone has an idea of what to go for.
The Paper Assistant
Working from home, I have stuff that needs to get done and sometimes I want to work for an hour without being interrupted by bickering and loud bangs of unknown origin. So, I close my door and the kids all know that there better be fire or a lot of blood if they’re going to open it.
Then I post The Paper Assistant.
The Paper Assistant is a blank piece of paper taped to my door. It greets those who have to come to it with some urgent-non-urgent matter. It’s blank whiteness communicates, “I’m sorry, she is not available right now, can I take a message?” and my kids can write out their requests and grievances.
The concept: The Paper Assistant is divided into four categories that represent the most common source of interruptions: “Can you do this for me?,” which requests my doing or helping them with something, “Can you get this next time you go to the store?,” which serves as a shopping list, “Help me with this personal/family situation,” which is where tattling, complaints and frustrations are handled, and then, of course, “Other,” for all miscellaneous concerns, including requests for permission to do something. Attach a pen or pencil to keep things easy.
The reality: My Paper Assistant works fantastic. She’s friendly, but firm and she keeps track of things that, though important (sometimes), would otherwise be forgotten.
When my kids were younger, I would’ve spent half of my summer answering the question “Can we have a snack?” if not for taking some proactive measures. Hence, a plan was born.
The concept: Stock the fridge and cupboards with ready-to-eat, somewhat nutritious snacks and give instructions about how much they can have and when. Ideas include: fruits (apples, frozen grapes, melon chunks, etc.), veggies (cucumber slices, sugar snap peas, mini tomatoes, etc.), hard boiled eggs, hummus and pita chips or veggies, pistachios or peanuts in shell, sunflower seeds, trail mix, yogurt, cheese sticks, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crackers and pretzels. This is what I tried, but families all have different needs and preferences.
The reality: Yes, my kids would’ve preferred an endless tub of Goldfish crackers. But the novelty of getting their own snack made cherry tomatoes and pistachios seem exciting, at least for the first couple weeks. And yes, things deteriorated. By the time summer was over we subsisted almost entirely on artificially flavored and colored popsicles.
Other handy survival tools for parents:
Light summer reading
Small, doable adventures (that you enjoy too)
A refreshing beverage
Mandatory quiet reading time
Screen time rules