By Susan Kurlander, Health Educator
“Summertime. . .and the living is easy” — or so thought my teenage daughter. She planned to sleep until noon every day and then just hang out with friends during the summer of her junior year of high school. It was a rude awakening for both of us when I realized I had never set down expectations for what she considered her free time, and she had never dreamt that I would have anything to say about her lack of constructive activity. We were both remiss in our perspectives. My sense is that is easy for many parents and their pre-teen and teenage children to fall into the same pattern.
Parents and kids alike need a break from the overscheduled days we have during the school year. We need to catch our breath and enjoy things we don’t have time to do when we’re busy with so many obligations. But if our teens don’t have goals to accomplish or activities to participate in, all that free time can lead to risky behaviors and unhealthy habits. When parents aren’t around, how easy it can become for kids to engage in unrestricted computer use, to have easy access to medications including prescription drugs kept in the home, to indulge in abusing alcohol kept at home, or to watch R rated movies without parental supervision.
So, how do we help our teens find the balance between enjoying their newly found free time and accepting some responsibility to use that time in positive and non-harmful ways?
Communication and trust are key components to making summer a time of growth and appreciation of what we have. Conversations about expectations need to start before summer arrives, with both parents and teens expressing their thoughts without being judged. Remember, there can be lots of options for how the summer unfolds as long as it winds up being a time to rejoice, rejuvenate and regroup.
Even if your children attend camp, here are some suggestions for how their free time can be used positively and productively:
- Working at a summer job, even unpaid, can lead to new friendships and learning new skills.
- Volunteering at senior centers, the zoo, animal shelters, soup kitchens, etc. will look good on college resumes and applications.
- Attending a class or two can give students a jump start on deciding about a future college major.
- Planning a future fundraising project for a worthy cause might insure the success of that project.
- Participating in a recreational sport can help to develop the prowess needed to gain a place on the team in the fall.
- Here are some organizations to check out:
American Red Cross (Junior Red Cross) : Help organize a blood drive or participate in knitting projects
The Ronald McDonald House : Collect pop tabs off aluminum cans to donate to the program.
Habitat for Humanity: Help build homes for poor people in the community.
Meals on Wheels: Do craft activities such as making tray favors for delivered food.
Libraries : Plan a themed story time for toddlers; clean and sort books.
Congregations and schools: Many welcome student helpers to move books, sort materials, and clean up.
A “perk” of all these suggestions is that teens will be building self esteem and nurturing a sense of self worth that is critical for making healthy decisions about they do with their lives not just during the summer, but forever.
Parents can model finding a balance between free time and responsible use of time by scheduling some time with family during the summer to do fun activities or by volunteering (which may turn out to be more fun that you might think, and could turn into a project that continues past the summer). Maybe together you could pursue a website like ancestry.com as you figure out your family tree and history.
Whatever the activity is, encourage and expect your pre-teen or teenager to do something constructive as well as relaxing during those lazy summer days. The combination of having fun and accomplishing something significant could give your child a whole new perspective on life. Most importantly, your child’s time will be much less likely to engage in risky behavior when summer time is used fruitfully.
By Susan Kurlander, Health Educator, Prevention Education, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
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