A Summer To Forget

I have an unconventional view about kids and summer that I’ve been reluctant to share, because I imagine most will disagree. Some might consider my point of view irresponsible. But since both of my teenage daughters have recently offered their unsolicited corroboration, I’m taking the plunge.  My kids have great instincts, and if they have conviction in something it must be worth sharing. 

My 15-year-old middle daughter, a sage old soul, expressed this idea brilliantly during a recent exchange with her 10-year-old brother. He has a character trait that’s admirable but baffling to all of us. He’s intensely conscientious about his school work and completes assignments well in advance of their due date. Who does that? If he shares an urgent concern about finishing a school assignment, you can bet he doesn’t need to turn it in for several weeks.  Needless to say, he didn’t get this from me. This is DNA from an alien species.

Occasionally this summer, my boy’s been stressing about the optional math review packet due when school starts, especially because we’ve had some technical difficulties downloading it for him. When he recently shared his worries, his sister retorted, “You don’t need to do it. They’ll review all the material anyway.”

“But the teacher said I’ll forget everything!”

“It’s summer. You’re supposed to forget everything,” she commanded.

I couldn’t have said it better. I believe in letting our kids’ brains turn to mush over the summer. Kids need to relax their minds, forget there is such a thing as school work, vegetate and assimilate. They need these months to shuffle and reshuffle the deck, disassemble and reorganize, access latent areas of their minds. They need to lose all track of time. Often. Children do this best when we respect their choices, especially when we honor their choice to do nothing at all.

(The obvious exception to this laissez-faire approach is passive entertainment and screen time. TV and video games might always be “first choice” and need our monitoring.)

“I don’t want to learn anything in the summer,” was my eldest daughter’s pronouncement at age 7, and she’s stuck to it. Now 19 and entering her sophomore year at a topnotch university, she’s managed throughout her life to avoid anything she perceived as academic summer enrichment.  She’s chosen Girl Scout camp, sports and ocean camps and a Christian choral camp. She’s remodeled houses for low income Native Americans, had a couple of  internships, hung out with friends and worked at the local juice bar, but noooo learning for her, or at least nothing that felt like learning. Just play and adventures.  

I see summer as one long extracurricular activity, and my belief about all extracurricular activities is that they belong solely to the person engaging in them.  Many have asked me how the RIE approach translates to parenting older children. My answer is trust kids to choose. This is the way older children continue to benefit from self-directed play and is essential for encouraging and nurturing intrinsic motivation

Why wouldn’t we trust our children to know what they need to do to balance the brain work that is required of them during the school year? Only our children can know this. Just like when they were babies, our kids intuitively know what areas of “self” they need to develop. Our validation of these choices is immensely empowering.

One of my most memorable moments this summer was about forgetting. I was lying on the beach next to my 19-year-old daughter. My son was floating on his back in the tranquil sea.  After spending several minutes in that stillness, he stepped out of the water and made a little sand castle. I closed my eyes and forgot. I forgot I was a teacher and a blogger. I even forgot I was a mom and wife. I was just me.

(Photos were taken by my daughter during the many summers she learned nothing at all.)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Holidays are definitely their time to recharge and have fun. My children have not learnt a thing! They have ‘not’ learnt about visiting a different country, how to build a wonderful stick fort or to follow the instructions on a Lego creation (on their own). They have ‘not’ learnt how to swim better and put their heads under water in our beautiful river or reconnect with old friends that they do not normally play with at school. They haven’t learnt how to read off of the menu at our favourite restaurant, play new card cames or climb the biggest trees (I have a few new gray hairs). My children have had the most wonderfully fun and carefree summer and they haven’t ‘learnt’ one single thing, which is just the way we like it!

  2. The funny thing is, the kids are probably learning and retaining more from their summer and they just don’t even realize it!!! Kids need to be kids!!!

    1. I agree! They may not be “learning” over the summer in a structured way, but I feel like my little guys have been learning SO much: picking edibles from the garden, camping for the first time, etc.

  3. i am wondering what your thoughts are on trusting older kids to fchoose their own activities if that consists of video games and TV all day. If I had had the opportunity, I probably would have spent the majority of my summer hours engaged in these activities.

    1. In retrospect, do you wish you could have done that? For me, it would depend on the child and his or her age. I was very careful about limiting my children’s exposure to screens in the early years (the most sensitive for the development of learning skills) and they have all three been excellent, motivated students, so I have found that I could totally trust them to find balance as teens. My limits at that point have been around appropriateness of the material. For example, many of my children’s friends have had free rein to see PG-13 movies at age 9 and younger, and R movies at 10 or 13 or younger. I might make the rare exception for an otherwise wonderful film, but I generally say a firm no to allowing my kids to be exposed to material I don’t consider developmentally appropriate for them. I’ve had to be unpopular at times. 😉

  4. Yes! I couldn’t agree more! Summer is for being bored, forgetting, daydreaming & the like. Thank you for this post, Janet.

  5. avatar Norval Dampney says:

    Love this so much, Janet. Agree completely and I’m so glad my three children (now aged 30, 27 and 25) spent their summers fiddle faddling around.

  6. avatar Laura newman says:

    I love your post & whole heartedly agree! But…what to do about all the holiday homework!

    1. I don’t make my kids do it. In their school it’s voluntary, not mandatory, and I mirror their interest and encourage if they want to, but don’t push them or remind them if they don’t remember it first themselves.
      Even if it was mandatory I’d figure out how to ‘forget’ to do it.

  7. I don’t disagree with your view. There is nothing to disagree. I like how your kids seem to know what they want and how with it they are. I sent my kids to summer school. 7,9,14 yrs old. Kumon tue & thur. Karate and camp. City excursions. Did we do too much? After reading your article, i’m rethinking

    1. That would be too much for me, and I definitely wouldn’t have my kids do anything they weren’t eager to do. I consider this their time, not mine.

  8. avatar Callmechook says:

    I have had countless arguments with teachers over holiday homework. I feel they shod not be expected to do it and when handed it I have given it straight back. I’ve been told that I will undermine their progress at school, their development etc, etc. My answer has always been, show me th we work you will be doing during the holidays. Strangely they never do and to date none of my four have completed any holiday home works at all. It’s interesting to note that they all function/ed above the expected age level within school. Summer for us is a time to do what you want, wear pj’s all day, eat cereal for lunch, sleep late, hang out with friends and just be a kid doing kids stuff. You only get one chance, I think you should grab it while you can x

  9. I love this in theory but – this is to some extent a class based issue. YOur kids probably can do fine turning their brains off for the summer, because they are challeneged in so many other non-academic ways. Probably that’s true for many of the poeple that read your blog. That said, higher SES students do comparatively better than lower SES students over the summers. I’ve read that the differences in high school achievement between lower and higher SES students can largely be attributed to gaps in achievement over the summers that never go away. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/opinion/28smink.html

  10. A wonderful article that supports, as RIE does, home education. School and “learning only when taught” is NOT respectful to children. Those whose eyes have been opened to the truth of RIE should never blindly follow the masses in relation to anything mainstream. Our children deserve more. x x Thank you.

  11. avatar Rebecca How says:

    I love that we found a camp that has no structure other than lunchtime and an end of the day gathering. They have plenty of activities kids can chose to do, on their own time, throughout the day like bread baking, song (karaoke) studio, dance studio, playground, water games, sports, sewing studio, even coding. I feel this is the best alternative for my only child, a few days a week while I work. The best part is they don’t have sessions or weeks you have to sign up for so you can drop your kids any day you need. Even get reimbursed for days you do not use! Thanks for your post!

    1. That sounds amazing. I do not understand why more places do not offer that flexibility. The programs around me are so strict and ridged. My son hated them. His words were ” there are so many kids here we cannot have fun because there are so many rules.” That was the last time he went there.

  12. A suggestion I would recommend changing “Native Americans” to “low-income Native Americans”. It reads to me like all Native Americans are grouped in the “needs help” category. I hope that’s not your intention, but it is important to be clear and explicit and avoid further stereotyping minority communities. With love, an ever faulty always trying mom

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I’ll make that change immediately.

  13. Yes, and the idea that the brain is turning to “mush” when one is engaging in nature and play-based learning at any age has been disproven completely and repeatedly. I also think this has become a huge class issue in our culture. The young parents I know who did not go to college will have none of this and are so drawn to the “kiddie colleges” for earliest childhood that involve involve desks and worksheets. They’ve been convinced by our competitive, marketplace educational culture that this is the road to success. So the challenge is to keep holistic education from becoming (remaining?) the domain of the elite.

  14. This is how I remember my childhood summers. Lots of free, unstructured play time. Now, in my second summer as a single mom, my young children are in full-time care in the summer while I work. They have a lot of structure to their days, and I can get the “mom-guilt” when I remember my more carefree summer. However, they do get lots of free time outside on playgrounds and in the swimming pool. And when we are home together, I try to let them direct their activities as much as possible. Thanks for this – I am appreciating your posts about older children as mine have grown out of the baby stage.

  15. By respecting our children’s choices, shouldn’t that include allowing them to make the decision to complete academic work? Without making them feel silly for wanting to do that task?

  16. Reading was a part of those lovely summers for me. I traveled to different worlds that had absolutely no relation to school while curled up in a tree, on a blanket in the sun, in a lawn swing, in a spring chair on my grandma’s shady porch, in my bed at night with the cool evening breeze flowing in the open window.
    Most days we used our imaginations to create whole new worlds in our own backyard, creating structures with clotheslines and blankets and scripting and acting out the stories we created. We rode our bikes into new adventures, visited elderly neighbors and received delicious cookies, made forts in fields full of tall weeds, went on secret missions, collected pop bottles and sold them for penny candy at the neighborhood store, and played in our pool with its patched up vinyl lining. My mom would pour bleach in every day until it finally had to be drained. We splashed and “swam” and floated on our backs and looked at the clouds, making up stories about the odd ones. Mom would bring out Kool-aid and peanut butter and honey on crackers which we devoured before jumping in for more. We shot baskets at the goal on the front of Dad’s workshop and sometimes he and mom would take us on in a game. There were neighborhood baseball games where the “big boys” grudgingly let us play to make the numbers and I learned I could outpitch the boys. Summer nights were for chasing lightning bugs, watching sunsets, roasting marshmallows, and playing hide and seek or tag in the dusk, or badminton by the porch light. I honestly don’t remember being bored. There were just too many things to do and see. When I talk to my students today and all they are looking forward to is Fortnite or other gaming marathons, texting nonstop, taking selfies, and all of the electronic addictions they hold dear, or those with heavily scheduled activities, practices, and social events, I feel very sad for them. Those summers were some of the most glorious times of my life and when school started, I was ready to see all my friends and start learning again. I made sure my kids got to have those kinds of summers too. Maybe without as much freedom to roam, but with the means to create, relax, and enjoy being themselves.

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