The Myths of Summertime Parenting
‘I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast worked that you’ve seen zero percent of. Even the inside of your mind is endless; it goes on forever inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you're alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say, ‘I’m bored.’ [Louis C.K.]
That quote is a great starting point for today’s discussion because it captures the essence of how we often fail our children, perhaps more so in summer than in the rest of the year. Summertime brings with it a host of challenges and the opportunity for many rewarding experiences. This is true for children and parents.
As a psychologist working with families, I see the impact of societal beliefs that we have often tacitly accepted over time. What evolves is a form of erroneous mythology that harms, not helps, our children.
Three Common Summertime Myths
1. “It’s my job to entertain you and keep you happy.”
Despite a world of ever-increasing electronics, toys and gadgets, and sources of entertainment, the most common phrase that will be uttered by America’s youth this summer: “I’m bored.”
Could the problem be that our youth have less access to activities and sources of entertainment? Of course not! If anything, the problem is the opposite. Most children live in an environment with constant stimulation and activity, and parents accept the false idea that we must entertain our children constantly.
The result: Children become more and more dependent upon the environment to provide for their entertainment. They are never allowed ample opportunity to be without electronics and initiate a ballgame, ride bikes, run around the yard, build something, and help mom or dad in the garden. The options are endless, and we must allow children the opportunity to find their contentment in this fantastic world. And yet, there is probably a voice inside you saying:
2. “But more activity is better than less activity!”
No, not necessarily.
Before you react, I am not suggesting that activity is a problem. It’s just that constant activity, constant involvement in sporting events, constant rehearsals, play dates, and practices are not helpful.
Why? Because the need for constant stimulation and activity creates a dependence on that process, with no sense of inner ease and comfort. The constant seeking of the ‘next exciting thing’ generates an internal dopamine dependence that is now well documented and is a setup for future frustrations and angst.
Bottom line: We are teaching our children today how to live their life ten, twenty, or thirty years from today. If we teach them that being immersed in constant activity is the path to happiness and success, we will give them a false model to pursue.
And yet, as you read this, another part of this mythology may immerge. You may find yourself thinking of how your children will be running around the house, complaining about what a mean parent you are, how bad you are, and how you don’t give them everything they want. If you are not careful, you begin to believe…
3. “It’s my job to keep them happy.”
You can engage in various healthy and inviting activities with your children during the summer. In contrast, there are also many beautiful moments to relax, allow for more reflective and creative endeavors, and seek balance. This is all good stuff.
But there’s a question I would like you to consider: 'Who's working harder at their happiness right now? Me? Or my child?
If you can keep this question front and center all summer, you will notice an important distinction. Your job is to offer reasonable opportunities for children and teens to find happiness in the world available to them. We all must learn to enjoy what is in our lives NOW.
If we ask others to keep helping us find happiness, that dependence upon the external world is a trap. But, the harder we work at their happiness, the less they do. Ultimately, we “disable”; our kids from discovering their strengths and using their creativity and energy to discover their happiness.
A Healthy Alternative
Here are a few ideas about what you could say to your children and teens and how you could use your energy to help shape and nurture the behaviors that will create healthy, responsible, engaged children.
Consider this message: “It’s my job to make sure that you have a house to live in, food to eat, and the opportunity to find happiness and success. And I will do my best to give you every opportunity for that. However, it’s not my job to make you happy. It’s not my job to entertain you constantly. That’s your job.
I want you to be happy, active and to experience a wonderful life. I will not work harder at that than you do, however.”
Then go about living your life with a focus on balancing those activities with the values that you hold dear. Consider an alternative. Instead of using your energy to try and fix things when your kids complain that “I’m bored… I’m bored,” consider an alternative.
Let them be bored. Let them complain. Allow them the opportunity to find their way out of this. Just don’t try to fix it or argue with them. Any engagement will only feed it and limit their happiness in the future.
Instead, reserve your energy and attention for healthy moments when they are engaged in productive, satisfying, and enjoyable activities. This way, they will learn that the healthy world does not care about complaints and unhappiness. Their energies will inevitably flow to better places, and they will find strategies for happiness and satisfaction with all available.
Dr. Randy Cale is a psychologist in Clifton Park, working with children and adults using the latest brain-based technology to improve focus, attention, emotion, and cognition. To learn more about his practice, visit CapitalDistrictNeurofeedback.com.