Summer is almost here.
For parents of school-age kids, this means freedom from the grind of homework, piano lessons, scout meetings and soccer practice. It’s time to relax and take in the summer breeze with the youngsters, right?
If only summer were that simple.
For many parents in the Washington area, summer is less about sun and fun and more about calendars and carpools. Some families bounce from day camps to after-care at full speed and then screech to a halt for a beach vacation, where everyone has one eye on their email.
We asked a few parents and parenting experts about how families can maximize enjoyment during the break, including some ideas about how to take a trip that actually feels like a vacation instead of just parenting with different scenery. Here are their suggestions.
Jennifer Curley is a former White House staff member who knows a thing or two about scheduling. In 1996 she was Tipper Gore’s director of scheduling and advance planning, and she also coordinated events for the 1997 presidential inauguration.
Yet coordinating the summer schedule for her two daughters, 9 and 10, can make Curley break out in a sweat.
“There’s something nice about summer and changing the routine, but there’s also this panic that sets in,” said Curley, who now runs a public relations agency. During the school year, parents know their kids will be in the same place each day, every week. But during the summer they could be at drama camp at the local theater one week and an outdoorsy activity at the park the next.
Curley has her children signed up for a sleepover lacrosse camp as well as golf camp, dance camp and swim team. She, her husband and her nanny coordinate carpools to get them where they need to be.
“The kids’ calendar is getting more and more intense,” said Curley, who color-codes each girl’s activity in her online Outlook calendar. “It’s a whole scheduling operation.”
One key for her family, Curley said, is to leave a few weeks open in the summer for family vacations and also for her daughters to have some unstructured downtime to just hang out at the pool. No schedules.
“You want to plan a vacation, you want a balance of downtime and family time,” Curley said. “Camps are what you do to fill their time with something constructive.”
Patti Cancellier, education director at the Parenting Encouragement Program in Kensington, said that even though parents might feel like they’ve already planned enough for summer by signing children up for various camps, they shouldn’t stop there.
Families should be deliberate about carving out fun time — or it might not happen, she said.
“Before the summer gets started and there’s the big switch in schedule, get the whole family together and come up with an agreement about what free time this summer will look like,” Cancellier said. “Let the kids talk about what’s meaningful to them. You don’t know what that will be until you sit down with them. It might be going to a pool or a playground or Friday movie night.”
She said it might seem counterintuitive to “plan” relaxing time in the summer, especially for people who aren’t planners by nature, but doing that will give families the best chance to find their happy place. Adults tend to like last-minute plans, but kids don’t, she said.
“Kids hate spontaneity, they don’t like surprises,” Cancellier said. “They like to know what their day will look like, what their week will look like. Predictability in children’s lives gives them security. They like to plan and anticipate things to come.”
Families should take time now, she said, to identify the spaces to make some summer memories, she said.
Cancellier said some parents have been able to do that by coming home early from work an evening or two a week, if possible, for some special family downtime.
“You could say, ‘Tuesdays we go to the pool and Wednesdays we eat a picnic dinner together,’ ” she said.
Even though summer is a more relaxed time for kids, Cancellier said, parents shouldn’t let all rules and structure slip away. For starters, she said, parents should limit screen time for kids and themselves. She said it’s sometimes hard for parents to put down their own phones, but it’s critical to be truly present for family time.
She also cautioned against letting bedtime slip, especially for the younger ones.
“We think bedtime can be more relaxed in the summer, but you’re not doing children any favors by doing that,” Cancellier said. “If it’s totally loose you’re going to have exhausted children.”
Rachel Rosenthal is a Bethesda-based professional organizer with twin 8-year-old girls. She said the way she cuts down on summer stress is to have processes in place to make things go smoothly.
That means having supplies accessible for kids to pack their own camp bags, and designating a place for flip-flops, bug spray, sunscreen and pool towels. And everything — everything — goes on a large calendar where the whole family can see it.
“It’s not about being rigid and controlling, it just to make things easier,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal said parents should include kids in the family’s pre-vacation planning and activities, and turn it into a game. She said it’s best to set aside a few hours for packing and to put that time on the family’s central calendar.
She said that packing the night before a trip is “insane,” especially because that’s when people have loose ends from work and life to tie up. Waiting until then makes things chaotic.
“You set the expectation of when we’re going to pack,” Rosenthal said. “You’re also involving your kids, which is a huge deal. Kids can pack their own bags. I make it a race. I’ll say, ‘Who can get their bathing suits first?’ It sounds crazy to schedule packing, but it makes it so much easier.”
She also dedicates a Moleskine notebook to each vacation, keeping packing lists, ideas and itineraries in one place.
“It’s a good way to begin breaking away from your phone and computer,” she said. “The book encompasses everything and becomes a journal once you’re on vacation. It’s a nice way to unwind and get out your thoughts.”
She saves the notebooks as a memento of the trip.
The saying goes that when your kids are young, it’s not a vacation when you go away with them. It’s a trip. That is particularly true if your kids are very young.
Amy Neuhardt is a lawyer who lives in Great Falls with her husband and their three kids: a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins. She and her husband, also a lawyer, have a nanny helping them care for their toddlers, and they often take her on vacation with them so they have an extra set of hands.
“Our vacations have been fun, but not really relaxing,” Neuhardt said.
For example, when they went to Great Wolf Lodge and Colonial Williamsburg, there was more action than relaxation. First, they realized they forgot their double stroller for the twins. Then one of the toddlers got an ear infection, so they scrambled to find a walk-in clinic.
“Although these trips are important, and I really enjoy the time with the children, I frequently feel in need of another vacation by the time I get back,” Neuhardt said.
One notable exception, she said, is when she went to a resort in Vermont where top-notch child care was provided. But that came with a fairly large price tag, so that’s not an option for everyone.
Rosenthal said that managing expectations can help make vacations more enjoyable.
“Some people try to do too much, whether they’re in Disney or India,” she said. “What we need to do is organize our thoughts and plans and release our expectations that we’ll hit every single spot and our kids will always be happy.”
Laelia Gilborn, a D.C.-based therapist who sees both children and adults, suggested traveling with other families. As long as it’s a good match, kids can play together, and parents can share child duties.
“I like having the companionship of other parents,” she said. “You can be digging in the sand but at the same time having interesting conversation.”
If you’re with friends, one of the couples can go out to dinner when the kids are asleep, then trade off for the next night.
Gilborn also said heading for a familiar destination can make the trip more enjoyable for everyone.
“Everybody knows what they want to do because they’ve been there,” she said. “You don’t have to spend time looking for your favorite ice cream place. Kids like repetition and familiarity.”
Taking a day off before and after the vacation can also help cut the stress, Gilborn added.
And if going away with friends for a week at the beach isn’t feasible, sometimes it’s fun to find an inexpensive but clean hotel not far from home and stay there for a night, she said.
Finally, to truly unplug and unwind, parents should either put away their phones entirely, or agree ahead of time when it’s okay to check in with work. Then stick to it.
“We know that kids need down, relaxing days,” Gilborn said. “It’s good for adults to have them, too.”