School's Out, Structure's In: How to Plan Your Child's Summer "Work Week"

06/19/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

While kids are counting down the days till "school's out forever!," many parents are secretly dreading the final bell. They love the thought of not having to wake up at the crack of dawn and get kids off to school, but they are anticipating being on the losing side of an endless game of keep away from electronics. Kids are anticipating this from the other side of the remote--with glee and delight. Why are kids so confident that screen time will be all the time? They know that parents can no longer leverage interrupting videogames to do homework or early wake up to catch the bus as a reason to stop playing Mario Kart or (say it's not so...) Grand Theft Auto.

Fear not. New idea to the rescue.

Your kids may be ready to jump into a great parental expectation-free summer, but you can turn the party around with a slightly different, well, actually, a completely different idea. The radical (to your child) idea is that you can do some work in the summer--whether that be pitching in around the house, or reviewing math facts-- and still have a great summer. Don't want to be the bearer of bad news? You're not. In a watered down version of what David Sedaris' parents might say-- You didn't invent this. It's called life. And it's actually good for them--and you.

Think back to your own childhood. We all had our chores to do. Making our beds, taking out the trash, doing dishes, cutting grass. We hated it, but that was fine. We didn't suffer for it; and though we wouldn't want to admit it, we adapted (even I eventually did stop crying whenever my dad asked me to weed the garden--for a whole 15 minutes). This is the great lesson of summer.

And it's best to start this lesson right off the bat.

Work, even work that we don't love, is part of life. Managing the frustration, the boredom, the agony of those 15 minutes sweeping the front porch, working on a math packet, or walking the dog is character building. And the earlier we start building that character, the more natural these habits become.

As much as we all crave free time, inertia and boredom ensue without structure. Enlisting your kids in a daily work assignment followed by free time gives them the structure to have a satisfying summer. We're not talking a 40 hour a week job, we're talking about creating a condensed workday--2 or 3 hours of accountability after which they'll have their fun time. This could consist of a unit of time each day in the following categories: Common Good--helping out with simple chores or babysitting, Activity/Exercise--indoor or outdoor, and Education--summer reading, math packets, SAT prep.

It's all in the delivery
What could make or break the success of this plan is the delivery. Think collaboration and conversation. The opener: "We really want this to be a great summer for everyone, we want you to have fun and we want you to stay healthy, and we don't want to fight. How about you?" Kids are more likely to follow through on a plan if they have a hand in the planning so ask your child for ideas about how to do this. Listen and reinforce any positive efforts. Have them write down ideas for each of the three categories above on separate cards. Then each morning your child can take the three cards and decide when they will do each of their units. Or, streamline it and have your child create a daily pattern for the summer.

Here are some nitty gritty details to get you started (and convince you that you can and should institute this in your family!)

Common good chores
Rather than assign tasks, ask your child to think of tasks they can do that are useful to the family (while you may think they haven't been paying attention when you ask them to help out, they know exactly what needs to be done). Even elementary age children can chime in about what chores they could see doing. Be creative--beyond the classics of helping with the trash, or emptying the dishwasher (or for younger kids-- just the silverware), but maybe your child could water plants, organize drawers, rip up mail for recycling. Let them take pride in having a "department" that is theirs to supervise, so instead of policing what kids do with their shoes for example, your child in charge of keeping the entryway neat will do it for you. Rule of thumb for timing is about 5-10 minutes for children under 7, Children age 8-10: 15-25 minutes, Children over 10: 25-45 minutes. Be flexible, many children are certainly capable of more, but the point is to get into the habit of doing this work every day, or at least several times a week, so it's not about seeing how much they can get done, but rather, how much they can get done without complaining too much.

The lazy days of summer is more than a euphemism for most kids. Children are at a greater risk for gaining weight over the summer with decreased activity and exercising their fingers texting or playing video games doesn't cut it. Initiate a daily kids-only or a fun family activity-- an early morning or after dinner walk, or walking the dog, a family bike ride or hula hooping or kick ball at the local field. It may be awkward at first if you're not used to this, but you'll find your rhythm and conversation. Getting friends involved will help create momentum and decrease nagging. Experts recommend two hours of activity a day--strive for one to start.

Reading/work time
Exercising the brain is important too. Research has proven that all kids are at risk of the summer "slide" losing their essential academic skills without practice; and that kids score lower on achievement tests at the end of the summer than at the beginning. Make this a family event whenever possible. Rather than sending your child to his or her room like a punishment to read or work on their summer math packets, create family study hall or reading time. It could be after dinner and before (or instead of) any television watching or screen time. Let your child choose the books, and share the reading of a book, or read side-by-side. You are modeling the value of reading and learning by your own participation. Or join in the larger community--many libraries build interest and excitement by inviting children to keep track and pitch in to the thirty million minutes of collective summer reading.

Screen Time When I tell parents that experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to two hours a day of screens for children 3-18 (and none for children younger than 3), they worry--how will they fill all the other hours?

I say--experts recommend eating 5 vegetables a day, I eat just 3 and I am a health-nut! So if you can only go with the spirit of the recommendation and not the stopwatch--no worries, having a flexible guideline is better than no guideline at all. You could decide to reward your child with an extra hour of screen time for cooperating with all the other expectations of the condensed work day without fuss or muss.

Need some ideas for non-technology activities? Here are some great books that you can find online or at the library: The Daring Book for Girls, The Dangerous Book for Boys, and a favorite of mine, Unplugged Play.

The bottom line is this--parenting isn't a 9 month a year job, and summer with its greater leisure offers opportunities for learning that may be harder to squeeze in during the busy school year. Offering your child a task that isn't instantly entertaining and enjoyable challenges them to find the fun, to sustain the effort, to be patient, and to work towards a goal that might not be immediately obvious or gratifying but in the end--it is. This is what they'll need throughout their lives, and you are taking this opportunity to reinforce this now. Kids entrusted with responsibilities are earning your trust, are being seen as important contributing members of their first community: family. This sets them up for seeing themselves in this light as they venture out into bigger versions of communities--school, jobs, towns, the world at large. This is how they learn that they count. This is where an authentic sense of self-esteem, self-worth and self-efficacy come from.

OK, lecture over. Well, almost. If when you institute this new structure with your kids you start to feel a bit of that double standard guilt as you spend too much time on your laptop and not enough time moving the rest of your body--challenge yourself to get on board. It takes three weeks to establish a new habit, so be patient and persistent. Your child will be surprised and will learn from your example! Happy summer all!

©2015 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Author, Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.
A version of this was previously published at