School's Out! Summer Survival for Busy Families

summer vacation tips

They're here! Tumbling from the school bus, fresh from Field Day, with papers and projects and petrified sandwiches spilling in their wake: your children.

Summer vacation is wonderful, no doubt about it.

Damp heads and wet bathing suits, backyard tents and fireflies in canning jars.

"Look, Mom!" rings out a hundred times a day, from the top of the pool slide to the bug-dotted bottom of an upturned rock.

Here comes the Kool-Aid Mom! She's all sweet smile and tidy clothes, calling cheerful children from the corners of the yard with a bell-like voice and tray of sweating, jewel-toned glasses.

Then comes the second day of summer vacation.

Sibling fights, tracked-in dirt, non-stop television. A complete and utter absence of clean towels. Your teen snarls from the dark corners of his room, while younger children taunt one another and squabble over the television remote. The tooth-gritting "Eh-oh!" from pre-dawn screenings of "Teletubbies" takes the place of an alarm clock.

Watch your step! That Kool-Aid stretches in sticky dribbles from the refrigerator handle, across the floor, over every counter, and out the back door. Over it all hovers the perpetual whine of "Mom! I'm bored!"

Smart home managers give some thought to summertime survival, and they do it now, before the deluge. Ponder these pointers to fine-tune home, schedule, soul and sanity for the upcoming summer season:

Simplify Your Surroundings

"Bring the outside in!" is summer's theme, in more ways than one. From banging doors to trailing dishes, your home will be turned inside out, more way-station and supply depot than a series of dedicated rooms.

Summer is no time for the delicate, the costly, the special because all of the above will be (1) dirtied, (2) lost, or (3) broken by summer's end.

It makes sense to strip for action. Don't want the pretty embroidered master-bath linens to hit the backyard trail? Bundle them up and hide them for the summer.

Replace them with a shabby set of wedding-gift towels, and be grateful! September's sane and slower pace will mean time to bring back the ruffles and flourishes. They'll be all the more treasured for the protective time out.

Remove breakables from child-height surfaces to protect them from racing children--your own, their guests, and a few neighborhood interlopers who saw the fun and just joined in. Summer decor should be functional, so round up the "objets" into boxes and make room for the Bug House centerpiece, complete with dead bug. My dear, you are so Chez Summer!

Replace glass drinking glasses with plastic mega-slurp freebies from convenience stores and fast food establishments. You won't whimper when drinkware is used to excavate tunnels for the gerbil or worry about little ones running with glasses in their hands.

Chill Out In The Kitchen

In the kitchen, less is also more. Strip down meal planning and menus to match summer's relaxed schedule. Who needs to sweat over a hot stove when the gas grill is at hand? Try for a few simple standards for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and save the recipe tryouts and gourmet meals for the crisp and energized days of autumn.

A few simple preparations will save you, Mom, endless hours of "pour me, feed me" over the coming months.

Personally, I wish to kiss the wonderful engineer who invented the little whale-spout water dispenser attached to Moby Dick The Great White Refrigerator. Even little ones can pour their own ice water, if you put plastic glasses within reach and tuck a cotton area rug under Moby's toes to catch the inevitable overspray.

Prepare a large jug of your family's "house wine" each morning, whether it's fruit juice, powdered drink mix or iced tea, and tuck it in a self-dispensing plastic beverage container on a refrigerator shelf. Now, if only they would invent a self-closing refrigerator door.

Establish a "snack site" within child reach and you're a step ahead of ravenous children. Include healthy options like fruit, raw veggies, string cheese, animal crackers, popcorn, raisins and dried cereal instead of sugar-filled cookies or greasy potato chips. Bundle all of the above into a large plastic food storage container, label it "Snacks" with a permanent marker, and put it on a low refrigerator shelf.

Encourage independent lunch preparation by doing the same with all sandwich makings: PB&J, jar of mayo, floppy packs of lunch meat and cheese, cello pack of washed lettuce all stuffed into large open container labeled "Sandwich Makings." You pull the box out, you make your sandwich, and you replace the box.

Bring Sanity to Summer Scheduling

Opinion time. Today's parents are earnest and concerned and want the best for their children. Art lessons, Kumon math, gymnastics and Kinder-musik compete for our children's time. Soccer and Little League demand total family loyalty and the sacrifice of every dinner hour for a three-month season.

Each summer, there's golf camp and computer camp and swimming lessons and Cub Scout Day Camp (shudder, shudder, twitch, twitch, says the old den mother)--and Mom's in the van for every single one. Whatever happened to that staple directive of mothers everywhere, "Go out and play!"? Will this summer give your children time to be a kid?

It's curious, what we do. We over-schedule our children from age 2 to early adolescence. Then they dive into the relative aimlessness of the peer group at age 13 without the internal resources necessary to keep them out of mischief. Why? Because they've experienced Parent-As-Social-Director and have never learned to amuse and engage themselves.

Enough already! This year, consider giving your school-aged children the ultimate Status Kid gift: free time.

Time to dream, time to grow, time to stretch out on the hammock and read a novel from cover to cover. Time to build elaborate fantasy worlds in the backyard sand pile. Time to squabble with siblings and time to resolve the issue without Mom's intervention.

Time to learn: to knit, to cook, to sew. Time to build model rockets. Time to open a lemonade stand on the corner. Time to mow a few neighborhood lawns for money, and time to dawdle at the mall in the spending of it. Time to hold a mega-Monopoly tournament and decide the ruler of the world.

Ignore the veiled sneers of the Pool Mommies: "What? You don't have Bella enrolled in Compu-Learn for Tots? Don't you worry that she'll fall behind the other 3-year-olds and never be able to get into a good pre-school?" In carving out time for play, you give your children the most valuable skill of all: the ability to nourish and sustain themselves.

Long after they've forgotten the Comp-U-Tot drills on "this is the SEE-prompt!", they'll know how to search within themselves for resources, for interests, and for entertainment. This is how you create strong, independent, resourceful adults with a true zest for living.

Your teens? Do it the other way, and keep them busy. Summer jobs may be hard to find for younger teens, but volunteer work gives young people of any age the invaluable gift of learning to contribute. Let them help at the Food Bank, in local libraries, and summer day camps. Herd them, bleating and moaning, to your area's Habitat for Humanity house and put a hammer in their hands. Hire them to paint the house, shampoo the carpets, detail the car. Ignore their complaints.
Give your teens the gift of usefulness and the joy of productive work. The experience of being a young adult taking a first few steps into an adult world is far, far more valuable than another summer lolling around the pool, gawking at swimsuit-clad peers. They'll thank you for it, too, in 25 years or so!

Savor Summer's Fleeting Sweetness

Summer is a special time for mothers, too. Snuggling small wet bodies in sun-warmed towels. Bringing late-night snacks--and a welcome reminder of home and safety--to first-time back-yard tent campers. Teaching a child to cook Grandmother's Banana Pudding, and sharing stories of your own childhood as you stir.

Reading the whole of "Harriet the Spy" to a wide-eyed 8-year-old. Shopping for a 13-year-old daughter's first "junior" bathing suit and not wincing at how womanly she suddenly looks. Supporting (and surviving) a 16-year-old's first job search.

Summer is not just for kids! Reach for that sweetness, Mom. Make time for it, between working and shopping and following the ant trails and paying the power bills.

It is the stuff that life is made of, after all!