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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 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.”
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.”
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