A funny thing about summer: It is long. It is also hot. This one comes in the middle of a global pandemic.
And even in a changed and changing world, I am panicking about how my kids, husband and I will make it to September without everyone’s brains turning into Haribo gummies.
And yet, working from home with small children, an ordeal and a privilege, has been de rigueur since agrarianism got going. Parents managed it for thousands of years — without day care, compulsory schooling or camps.
What did children used to do all day? Short answer: They worked and they played, often with minimal adult supervision.
Unfortunately, said Steven Mintz, author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood,” “The pandemic has exaggerated and intensified the worst features of children’s play today: adult intrusion; the decline of physical, outdoor and social play; and mediation by screens.”
So, how do we adults ameliorate that while staying safe, employed and reasonably sane?
Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explained that the desire for play is innate and that children will find ways to amuse themselves, especially if you can supply some rudimentary toys: kites, cards, blocks, dolls, balls, paper boats and paper airplanes, a garden hose if you have one, a half-filled tub. If they have a safe space to play outside (where the toys are even more analog: sticks, rocks, dirt) and you can work from your phone while they do it, even better.
And it’s time to get away from the idea that play should be educational or STEM-enhancing. “All play is productive,” Mintz said. “They will learn something from whatever they do.”
Feeling that we ought to keep kids happy and entertained is a comparatively modern mind-set and speaks to certain resources and luxuries. Instead of trying to prevent boredom, welcome it and see what children do.
Tom Hodgkinson, author of “The Idle Parent,” suggested ramping up slowly with an hour or so of “nothing time” every day — maybe less, if your children are very young. If they resist, he suggested doubling down on tedium (reading “Paradise Lost” aloud) so that they end up running into another room and doing something else.
“You could try boring them with your games so they invent something better,” he advised. “Be a really boring mom.”
Bring culture home
If you can’t take your kids to cultural events, have your kids bring culture to you.
“Be like Louisa May Alcott,” Mintz suggested. The March girls of “Little Women” don’t spend a ton of time lobbying for more “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” episodes. Instead, they make up fantasy plays, write newspapers, craft costumes, stage their own circus and act out stories.
Your kids’ efforts may be painful to watch, but the 20 minutes your children spend preparing a deeply revisionist “Frozen 2” is 20 minutes you can spend doing something else.
Two words: free labor
Housework can become a form of play and, depending on how well or poorly your children do it, may actually be some help. In the 19th century, Hodgkinson said, “children were seen as not necessarily a burden on the household but a welcome labor force.” Employ them.
“The thing to remember is that kids want to help, so try to get them in the habit of doing some of those things,” said Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence. “A 3-year-old separating laundry is quite possible and also quite fun. Six-year-olds can be making breakfast.”
So, yes, children can cook, and they can clean. If you can take a few extra minutes to gamify the chore (aka Mary Poppins’ “Spoonful of Sugar” approach), they may even enjoy it.
Give guilt the vacation that you can’t take, and try to get through it.
“Don’t think that there’s something wrong with you or that you haven’t been the perfect camp counselor and made it a fun and exciting and rewarding summer for everyone,” Skenazy said. “I mean, just give yourself a break.”
If that break involves a lot of screens, remember that new entertainment forms and technologies — from the written word on — have always attracted suspicion that they will pulp or corrupt young minds. And most of us have turned out OK, no matter how many “Smurfs” episodes we may have once absorbed. Video games provide an opportunity to socialize; a streamed musical is still a musical; a virtual tour of a gallery or museum isn’t the same as wandering the halls yourself, but take what you can get.
In general, find out what your children like to do and encourage them to do it.
Or go with the obverse: When you have time available, make them do stuff that you like. In my case, that means playing board games and watching the occasional movie. Or the more than occasional one.
“Just let them watch a lot of films,” Hodgkinson said. “It’s temporary; it’s not forever. We really shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves.”