Should parents expect the same level of discipline out of their children over the summer months?

To some degree, yes, says Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist in private practice in Patomac, Maryland, and member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. But according to Brody, a little lack of structure over the summer is actually a good thing.

“Kids’ lives are so structured these days,” Brody says. “They’re under so much pressure, really, at the beginning of the summer, they should have some unstructured time.” Time, he says, when they’re not expected to be doing something the parents specifically want them to do—like reading or writing, for example.

Yet the problem of “summer slide” (skill loss) is a realty for children and adolescents, and the problem of discipline (or lack of) when schedules and routine change is also a reality.

How can you cut your child some slack this summer but also set the stage for good behavior and positive growth?

Here’s a look at a few suggestions for handling the change in routine and some of the most common problems and concerns with summertime discipline:

Summer Routines

Summer routines are sure to be different from school-year routines, even for children with two working parents. The most important thing parents can do, says psychologist Carl Pickhardt, is discuss with children what is not going to change—the critical continuities they want and expect. Maybe bedtime won’t change, or chores won’t change. Children and adolescents need to be freed of some of the tight structure that was in place during the school year, Pickhardt says, but they also need the security of knowing that some things will remain the same. “It’s this continuity,” he says, “that can discourage behavioral problems.”

Pickhardt, who has a regular blog on Psychology Today, also suggests scheduling unstructured time into the summer routine. “You can schedule in free time where the kids can do with themselves in ways that feel good, to create good companionships, for example,” Pickhardt says. “But you simply cannot say summer’s here and you decide what you’re going to do or not to do.”

Another suggestion is to talk with kids about the contribution they are going to make to the family this summer. Summer is not only about having fun and parents doing for children; it’s also about children doing for the family—contributing to the family as a whole. Perhaps you can arrange for an ongoing project the kids might work on a certain amount of time each day or week. “You really want to get them in the habit of mutuality,” Pickhardt says. “This has to do with issues of exchange and reciprocity—I am happy to do for you, but I also want you to do for me.”

Independent Exploring

Brody emphasizes the benefits of unstructured time to play, which, over the summer, often includes independent exploring. How much independence is too much? How much is too little? This depends more on maturity level than age, Brody says. You might notice that your neighbor lets her child who is the same age as your child bike around the neighborhood unaccompanied. Is this okay for your child, too? As a parent, you know your child, and you have a pretty good instinct about how he or she will behave without you around. Brody suggests “independent exploration with minimal supervision.” For example, “Take the kids to the park and keep sort of an eye on them,” he says, “You risk freedom for the child in exchange for responsible conduct.”

Playing With Older Neighborhood Kids

Part of the trouble with children exploring independently over the summer is the possibility of meeting older kids. “The world opens up and you want to experiment with things that are considered forbidden or only for older kids,” Pickhardt says. This is where the trouble can start. It’s always best, Pickhardt and Brody agree, for children to associate with same-age peers. Children can learn a lot from adolescents, and adolescents can be very positive role models for younger children, but it’s best for parents to know those adolescents well and to know their parents well before leaving their children to play with them. There has to be a lot of respect and trust before this scenario should take place.

Sleepovers

Summer’s finally here and suddenly everyone wants to have sleepovers. There’s no reason not to do sleepovers as long as your child is comfortable and you’re comfortable with the children and parents in the other home. In fact, Pickhardt says children can learn a lot from a sleepover about managing sustained time with friends. And parents can often learn the next morning about how wonderfully behaved their child was! Also a positive is the knowledge (for parents) that the child doesn’t have separation anxiety that would prevent him from doing a sleepover. Keep in mind, however, that not wanting to sleep over at a friend’s house is not a sign of a problem. Brody says parents should not be critical of a child who doesn’t want to do a sleepover, or of a child who has to come home from a sleepover with a stomach ache in the middle of the night. “It’s something children have to grow into,” Brody says. “And obviously some kids shouldn’t have sleepovers even at 11 or 12 years.”

Summer Reading and Academics

How much reading and math should kids really be doing over the summer? If you’re like most parents, you go into the summer with a plan in place but soon find that it’s too difficult to enforce. It’s tough to entice kids to work on math when they could be playing baseball or swimming—and especially when there’s no homework due the next day. Pickhardt suggests a reasonable and minimal amount of time spent reading and working on academic skills over the summer. The key is the ongoing nature of the practice. In order to keep their skills current, kids should spend time every week—Pickhardt suggests about four hours per week. And he suggests visiting with the school at the end of the school year to find out the critical skills your child ended up with in math, reading, and writing. A few hours a week of practice should be enough—and also easy enough to enforce, Pickhardt says.

Screen Time

If they’re spending four hours a week on academics, how much time should they spend in front of a screen (TV, iPhone, computer, iPad)? According to Pickhardt, fifteen hours a week is plenty. “What kids learn through electronic entertainment literally wires young minds,” he says. “It’s a culturally induced problem—hardwiring kids to need high stimulation to keep them focused.” Pickhardt suggests that parents also encourage children to practice sustained concentration building, creating, reading, writing—simply learning how to entertain themselves. “Kids are increasingly focused on external entertainment at the expense of their internal capacity to entertain themselves,” Pickhardt says.

In addition to fostering concentration, screen time also takes away from outdoor exploration—hiking, riding bikes, playing in the park—which Brody says should be a summer staple. “A kid playing by himself in a dark room—I just don’t think that should be the summer experience,” Brody says.