Today’s news:

It’s summer — can we let the kids relax?

for The Brooklyn Paper

On the way home recently from Camp Half-Blood, Brownstone Books’ answer to every young demigod’s dream, Oscar came clean, though sheepishly, about my relaxed, though probing, question about what he’d done that day.

It was like, “you know, like recess,” he said.

I could barely contain my rage. What? They’d been promised swords and archery! I’d imagined some sort of Greek mythical battles raged on the lawns of Prospect Park, organized study groups where the great lessons of the gods became abundantly clear...

As I started to protest, throwing out terms like “bang for the buck,” and how he hadn’t even received the schlocky handmade sword he’d been looking forward to, my young Apollo rolled his eyes at me and put his little chubby hand on my arm.

“Mommy,” he said, “we’re supposed to just relax and play and have fun, remember? It’s SUMMER!”

My heart rate began to slow and I repeated his words in my head like a mantra: It’s summer, It’s summer, It’s summer. We’re supposed to just relax and play and have fun. We’re supposed to just relax and play and have fun…

Right. Wow. Without my 7-year-old’s wisdom, I might very well have marched up to the counselor demanding that my child get the much-coveted sword toot sweet, and that I see a moment-by-moment itinerary of planned activities and projects they’d complete by week’s end. I might very well have hated myself for not keeping him in Natural Wonders, a great camp where he walked five miles every day and learned about herbs and ended up with a Lotion Potion made from plants in the park.

But, then, I was forced to face down a dirty-faced happy-as-a-clam kid who all but told me what an idiot I was being. And I listened.

I pride myself on my relaxed approach to parenting — not over-scheduling my kids, limiting afterschool activities to a few a week, eschewing fall and winter sports so as not to be overburdened and overtaxed when it comes time for spring baseball and rugby. But what about summer? I’d let my kids hair grow, let mine tangle into dreadlocks, let showering slide in favor of wiping dirty knees with a wet paper towel when realizing it was filth not tan I was seeing.

Why did it seem so necessary, then, to ensure planned activities every moment, to put the boys into camps that structured exploration and learning much like school except in an outdoor setting? Why did I even balk at the idea that Osc was being loosely supervised just to have fun, with the great umbrella of a cool Rick Riordan book series as a backdrop?

Because all my talk about the importance of downtown was merely lip-service! I had emblazoned in my mind the long hot horribly slow summers in the Sonoran Desert near my childhood home of Tucson. I’m sure the boredom I endured has grown to weeks in my imagination where likely it was just days or even hours, but like any convert, my switch from low-key Westerner to neurotic New Yorker has been over-zealous to be sure: my kids are going to have FUN every minute! (Think Chevy Chase in “Vacation”: “Kids! We’re going to have so much fun that we’re going to have to have plastic surgery to wipe the smiles off our faces!”).

The pressure, the pressure. As parents, we sometimes take it all too seriously, this summer camp thing, out of some forced necessity to document and categorize and collate our kids’ experiences by some ridiculous standard we’ve created for “fun.”

Oscar’s eye-roll said it best, as did his sticking out tongue when he sensed me beginning to stress: Chillax!

So today, we did very little. We are on vacation. We spent the morning in the library, read at the table over lunch, did some errands, came back to our little rental house to putter around, and then the kids watched “Pirates of the Carribean.” I panicked at one point when I hadn’t paid attention to the kids in hours and wondered if maybe there was something more educational they should be doing. Then I had to smack myself upside the head and put down the Fantastik and the sponge.

It is a long road, ideally, and there have to be resting spots along the way. We have to find ways to relax ourselves and not expect that our kids will learn to figure what they want, what they enjoy, if they never have the freedom just to play as they might when left to their own devices.

Oscar added his own colored duct tape to his Half-Blood sword today, the one he got, finally, never complaining, after so many “Tomorrow”s that I began to quote “Macbeth.” He waved it around at his brother with a renewed sense of power, the power he’d been granted at camp as part of the group Apollo, the group stoked by the sun to participate in literature and music and poetry and all the arts.

Whether my kids are in camp or out the rest of this too-short season, I will try to repeat to myself the mantra: It’s summer. It’s time to relax and play and have fun. Soon enough we will be back in the madness of school and the merry-go-round of swirling activity. It is OK, every once in a while, to eat ice cream before the meal, to loosen one’s regular restrictions and rules. I’m trying. And when I forget, my kids, luckily, will remind me.

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Reader Feedback

k from gp says:
WTF Steph
July 21, 2011, 1:26 pm
Skaie from Manhattan Beach, CA says:
To: "K from gp"-uh, why are you and so many clearly uptight readers (and I bold READERS) so mean? I suppose as they say, when you point one finger at a person, you're pointing 3 back at yourself...so, maybe you should ask yourself, "WTF K"!

To: Steph-you're writing is brilliant (a word a rarely use!), and like a good short film, your story-telling is so compelling, illustrative, and always keeps my attention!
July 25, 2011, 1:36 pm

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