I remember glorious summers of nothing.
By “nothing,” I mean everything kids did back then: spending hours at the neighborhood pool and library, staying up all night reading an actual book, walking to the grocery store or a convenience store to browse the candy, playing “Ms. Pac-Man” on a coin-operated arcade game -- and a few years later, on an Atari. Setting up lemonade stands, riding bikes, exploring the trails behind our house, making up games with cousins and other kids in the neighborhood.
This throwback summer was what I envisioned I would give my children for a month this year.
Most of their previous summers have involved camps, activities or summer school. I had a few reasons why I thought a change this year could be mutually beneficial. First, they were old enough, at 14 and 12, to stay at home unsupervised for stretches of time. Also, it was going to be Ramadan, and we would be fasting from dawn to sunset many of those days. I didn’t want to deal with trying to wake them up for summer school when they were tired and cranky, nor did I want them outside in the heat if they were fasting. And, lastly, I had taken on one of those ambitious volunteer projects that had sounded like less work in theory than it ended up being in real life.
Maybe if my kids were less busy, I reasoned, I’d have more time, too.
I also hoped they might learn to become more consistent about chores, read more books and maybe even learn to deal with being bored, a skill lacking in children raised in a digital age.
My plan didn’t work out exactly as I had hoped.
The New Yorker recently published a witty “Shouts and Murmurs” essay about what life was like before the internet. I immediately texted a link to my children.
“I have never read anything more pretentious,” the 14-year-old replied. I informed them that what sounded like parody to them was what my childhood actually resembled.
The younger one, the less cynical of the two, asked, “Did you really do all this stuff?”
I told him about the 13 volumes of children’s World Book Encyclopedia we owned growing up. One hardcover volume was titled “Things to Do.” It’s how I learned to make a papier-mache pinata and what I consulted when I ran out of ideas. It was like a paper version of YouTube tutorials, I tried to explain.
“That seems nice,” he said.
“Childhood was better before the internet,” I texted, caught up in a wave of nostalgia. “It was more free.”
“Childhood was better during the Black Death,” the teenager texted back. “It was more free.”
That’s the sarcasm font, for the uninitiated.
The array of technology at kids’ disposal can easily take over an “unscheduled” summer, like television could in the past. There are so many more options for mindless screen-gazing or scrolling. Combine that with fewer neighborhood kids available during the day: With more single-parent and two-working-parent households, more kids are in camps all day. Older kids are signed up for enrichment activities or summer school, out of both necessity and a culture of competitive parenting. I have a friend who sets an alarm to schedule her son for the camps he wants the minute registration opens in March.
My kids’ digitally enhanced boredom (aka hours playing video games and surfing memes on Instagram) made me feel anxious and guilty. While their friends were probably doing calculus, writing dramas in French and building robots, my kids were watching “Bob’s Burgers” reruns and texting me pictures of an empty fridge, captioned “We legit have no food.”
Their unscheduled month of summer boredom was starting to stress me out. So, I signed them up for an hour of math a couple of times a week, just to make sure their brains weren’t rotting. They still did weekly music lessons. Oh, and one of them had multiple rehearsals for a fall production. They also started making their own plans to hang out with their friends.
For an unscheduled summer, I sure was driving them around a lot.
Meanwhile, fitting their schedules into my full-time job and a nearly full-time volunteer project was making my “summer of nothing” more like “summer of daily headaches and losing all my hair.”
Maybe their laid-back summer was bound to feel different from my hazy recollections and rose-tinted memories. When we get older, parts of our childhoods take on the good-old-days patina.
Our summers were better, we tell ourselves. Even our boredom was better.
Blogger Kristen Hewitt wrote a recent post called “Why we are doing nothing this summer,” which went viral. Hewitt described her family’s simple plans: work out, sleep in, watch TV, play outside and go to the pool.
“It’s so easy to be pressured by things we see on social. Ways to challenge our kids and enrich their summer,” she wrote. “But let’s be real -- we’re all tired. Tired of chores, tired of schedules and places to be, tired of pressure, and tired of unrealistic expectations. So instead of a schedule, we’re doing nothing this summer. Literally NOTHING. No camps. No classes and no curriculums. Instead, we’re going to see where each day takes us.”
Hewitt’s low-key summer sounds so much better than mine.
I couldn’t fully commit to the summer of nothing, and it turned into the summer of a little-bit-of-everything. On the upside, the teen is leaving for a three-week sleep-away camp soon, and her brother is signed up for a tennis intensive.
Maybe I can squeeze in a little nothing while they’re gone.