For 14-year-old Chloe Bennett, summer is a three-month quest to avert boredom. She’s too old for camp and day care, but too young for a regular job, so she fills her days with reading, exercise, volunteering, studying for AP Chinese, Snapchatting and hanging out with friends.
“The days are really long without school and it’s hard to find enough stuff to do for kids my age,” the Hopkins teenager said.
With both parents working, no job of her own or a driver’s license, Bennett says boredom is inevitable. “My day is full of blank hours,” she lamented.
Summer presents a logistical nightmare for kids 12 to 15 and their parents. Facing growing pressure to keep ’tweens engaged, off their iPhones and out of trouble throughout the summer, many parents work months in advance to patch together hectic and often expensive schedules of enrichment classes, sports, volunteer opportunities and other programs.
“It’s a very challenging period because at that age, most kids aren’t ready for total autonomy,” said Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, an Eagan-based educator and author of “Raising Your Spirited Child.” “They need structure, but they also need opportunities to practice life skills and gain independence.”
In more than half of Minnesota families, both parents work. Many of these parents are in a quandary over what to do with their kids during the summer, how to pay for it and how to get the kids there.
“This age bracket is actually harder than when they were still young enough to need day care or camp,” said Chloe’s mom, Sarah Bennett. “I thought it would be easier once she could just be home by herself, but I worry. I sit and wonder what she’s doing all the time.”
Minneapolis parent Renee Brown summed up the challenge of occupying her two ’tween boys’ time in the summer in one word: “hell.”
Brown’s sons are older now, but when they were 12 to 15, she tried to find structured activities that the boys would enjoy. They had chore charts and daily projects like cleaning their desks or sorting through old toys to donate. They volunteered at the nearby church and library, and they rode their bikes to the local baseball field to umpire games. One summer, the oldest had a “manny” job for a younger boy in the neighborhood.
“It was definitely something you had to strategize and piece together,” she said. “It really does get easier when they are old enough to get jobs.”
Ready or not?
Summertime prompts many parents to ask if their kids are ready to stay home by themselves. While Minnesota doesn’t have a legal age at which kids can stay home alone, Hennepin County has guidelines stating that kids 8 to 10 can be left alone for three hours, children 11 to 13 can be left alone for 12 hours and children 14 to 15 can be left alone for up to 24 hours.
“Maturity is a more important indicator than age,” said Stillwater parenting expert Jenny Hanlon, who offers a “home alone” class to help children 8 to 10 prepare for the independence and responsibility of staying home.
Even for families with kids who are mature enough to stay home alone, transportation is an obstacle. Some families hire older teenage baby sitters for a few hours to get kids to and from activities. Other families share carpool duties with other parents who live nearby.
Cost is also an issue. Minnesota parents who reported paying a fee for their child’s summer learning program spend an average of $208 a week, according to Afterschool Alliance.
“We hear from a lot of parents that they want their kids to have meaningful things to do that aren’t as intense as school and also don’t totally break the bank,” said Elizabeth Damico, recent pastor at Westwood Lutheran Church of St. Louis Park.
Damico said the church added low-cost summer leadership programs to meet the needs of the ’tween age group.
Let them be bored
In the Heerey household in Mendota Heights, the boredom of summer is considered a gift.
“It’s the space where creativity takes place,” said Michelle Heerey.
Heerey’s 14-year-old son has a list of chores and books to read. He bikes to the golf course and to soccer. He regularly cooks the family dinner, and he has become skilled at making something out of nothing — constructing a skateboard ramp out of wood scraps and hitting pine cones with a baseball bat in the front yard for hours.
Other parents fear their children will become victims of the “summer slide” and feel pressure to keep their kids enriched and engaged. While academic-rich summer programs are important, child experts recommend against parents adopting adultlike, busy schedules for their kids.
“Many parents report feeling pressure to find enriching activities for the summer,” said Jodi Dworkin, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. “Allowing your children to be bored not only gives them a chance to be creative … but it also gives them a chance to refresh and get ready for another school year.”
The summer slide is exactly why Thomas Johnson dreads summer vacation. The Minneapolis English teacher said too many of his students spend the summer “on the couch zoned out in a digital stupor” and return from break having developed a compulsive addiction to their smartphones.
“I want to see kids squirm with the discomfort of boredom until they figure out what to do,” he said.