Like a siren, the sounds of summer are beckoning the boys to the lazy delights of vacation mingled with trips to the beach, the mountains, and for the lucky ones, expeditions across the sea. Dreams of sleeping in, no homework, and unlimited “free-time” dance in their heads, while parents begin to worry that soon enough there will be bored boys on-hand pinching younger sisters and instigating fights over the last fistful of Fruit Loops.
But fear not! Below I share a highly idealized eight-step action plan that will hopefully assist you in the dog days of summer and may just serve as a salve to the idle mind, which the book of Proverbs and former Heights faculty member Dr. Hogan have told us, is “the workshop of the devil.”
Set High Expectations, Expect Failure
If you stop reading here, then you are already halfway to having a great summer. With pools opening this past weekend, forgive me for using the oft-used example of swimming as a metaphor for success, but I think it is an apt one here. A boy’s (and girl’s) summer can go three different ways: he can sink, tread water whilst wearing swimmies, or swim around and have a ball while growing in the process. The key to falling into the latter category is setting a high standard and not sliding into an existential crisis when he inevitably falls short. Boys make mistakes; we all do.
Having this expectation will not only ease your stress, which will greatly ease the boy’s stress, but it will also help both of you in the growth of patience, something for which many of us are constantly striving. Of course, taking a completely laissez-faire approach will likely lead to floating with swimmies: push him, let him jump into the deep end, let him struggle, give him freedom, but hold him to a standard of excellence, and he’ll knock your socks off (if not this summer, then certainly sometime in the next ten years).
The Three Rs
On a spring whitewater rafting expedition with lower school boys, one of our grizzled guides quipped that in West Virginia all the schooling is centered around the three Rs: “‘Readin’, ‘Ritin’, and ‘Rithmetic!” And while he was being facetious (I think), there is great necessity in the mastery of these three areas. Numerous studies have shown that taking three months off from each of these subjects constitute a giant leap backward, yet taking the time throughout the summer to work on them allows young people to stay on track, much as a raft guide does in keeping his craft pointing down-river in the stretches of flatwater between rapids.
Practically speaking, finding natural ways to work the three Rs into the summer will make the tasks seem less onerous. Families with younger children who need naps can institute a quiet period after lunch which, for older ones, is an excellent opportunity to read during the hottest part of the day. Writing letters to grandparents or siblings off at sleep-away camp (perhaps pushing beyond the classic “Dear Max, How are you? I’m good. Are you good? Bosco is good too. Your brother, Gus”) is a wonderful opportunity to build relationships and writing skills at the same time, as are thank you notes to teachers, mentors, and coaches. And times tables in the kitchen while cleaning up or planning a family picnic on a budget are great ways to add math into the equation.
Quality Time with Family and Friends
There is always a danger to over-structuring vacation. When I was working out west, clients would ask for a laundry list of suggestions to do, or say that they needed to be back at their hotel by X-time so as to partake in their next-booked experience. I would tell them, “We’ll get there when we get there!” and always encourage them to remember that it was vacation—go down to the river and sit a spell, go for a long hike into the mountains, that’s why people [should] come here. Summer is a marvelous—and natural—time to take things easy, to slow down before the oncoming storm of autumn and all that the harvest season entails.
Fostering a strong sense of family unity should be the one goal that supersedes all others: this can certainly be done at home, but will be enhanced through simple adventures like trips to the pool or to the library or grander ones for camping or beach weeks. Friends are important too, but perhaps consider gathering friends with the entire family rather than running oneself ragged driving halfway across the East Coast to visit Johnny in Damascus. Get to know Johnny’s parents and siblings by hosting a barbeque, or raise the bar, and host a sit-down dinner party. Also consider joint-adventures such as a couple of fathers taking a passel of boys on a challenging hike, or mothers putting together a picnic by a hard-to-find swimming hole, or take an afternoon for yourself (parents need breaks too) and sending an older sibling with a driver’s license off as the lead on an adventure.
Have a Routine
We all fall into regular routines on our own, from the order in which we dress ourselves (socks before pants or after?) to where we sit (an upper school student asked a colleague halfway through the year if they could switch seats, to which the teacher replied, “I never assigned seats!”). A good routine does not constitute a strict schedule. Keeping it fun, without being too structural, while having a loose daily plan that helps the boys hold onto a sense of order will keep the boys growing and will ease the shock of returning to school on the back end of the summer.
A couple of examples: Waking up early to get the sports section before someone else, eating breakfast, poring over the baseball boxscores, heading out to play wiffle ball—storming off because the brother was definitely out—sulkily finding a corner in which to read, lunch, reading for an hour or so, going back out to play wiffle ball—getting into a fight over whether the ball was fair or foul—quitting—finding someone else with whom to play croquet or cornhole, dinner, clean-up, more wiffle ball, the pool, reading… Or at the beach, waking up, watching Sportscenter, slathering on sunscreen, going to the beach, lunch, reading, back to the beach, home for popcorn and Coca-Cola, back to the beach, dinner, back to the beach…
Routines also allow us to hold onto certain novelties: growing up, only at the beach did we eat sugary cereals, drink soda, or have access to ESPN. Toss in minigolf, the Magic Mountain water slide, ice cream, and going out for dinner(!!), and time at the beach was a two-week slice of Heaven. Keeping novelty alive helps us find joy in the little things, and that is a treasure to hold onto.
Weekly and Daily Chores
You’ll notice that I did not mention chores in either of my above routine-examples and that is because, admittedly, I still find some chores terrifying and others less terrifying, unless I come up with the list myself. However, daily chores help to add a healthy structure to the day. Consider one or two morning and evening ones to keep the boys on their toes. These can be anything from emptying the dishwasher before breakfast and putting away the hand-washed dishes before bedtime, to making the bed before breakfast and cleaning the room before bedtime.
Perhaps add in some weekly chores too, such as mowing the lawn, washing the windows, or watering the flower boxes. Give them responsibility, help them buy into the family, and let them know they are needed (perhaps try, “would you help me with this?” rather than “Do this”). And for others, by giving the boys something to dread all week, it will only serve to help them learn how to lower their anxiety.
Without mincing words, oodles of screentime is a recipe for a bad summer. Send the children outside in the morning and they’ll be begging for quiet time after lunch, and stoked to return outside afterward. If not already overladen with outdoor toys, the summer is an ideal time to work on one’s lawn game skills, such as honing the perfect spin on the cornhole bag or perfecting the finesse of a Spikeball kill-shot. But if it’s not in the budget, leave them to the wilds of their literature-propagated imaginations and they’ll undoubtedly, to quote Walt Disney’s version of Michael Banks, “play games, all sorts!”
Beyond sending the children out of the house, consider the occasional day trip: for the DMV-bound, despite living in the midst of a nightmarish suburban sprawl, there are plenty of delightful slices of nature all around, from Great Falls to Rock Creek Park to Cabin John (the boys will know the way!) closer by; to Harpers Ferry and the Catoctins up north; to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley out west. Get out there, explore, discover, have a ball.
Culture is largely transferred through story and tradition. Fostering a love of these things is an important element of our roles as parents given that the family is the basis of culture. Aside from the importance of building the family’s moral imagination and sense of togetherness, having traditions adds to the excitement of summer.
These traditions can be large or small: for example, the Thursday before our annual August beach pilgrimage when I was growing up, we would head to the library to load up on books on tape, a handful of novels per child, and all of the Herge, Bill Peet, Barbara Cooney, Robert McCloskey (to name a few) books that were available. We would stumble out carrying the largest L.L. Bean canvas tote bags, bursting at the seams, and commence a picnic lunch. This expedition lasted a mere several hours once a summer, but we looked forward to it all year and reveled in it in the moment.
This is included last not due to lack of importance but rather out of the import of personal freedom and the fact that not all boys share the same benefits as Heights boys. All Heights boys say a prayer everyday before classes, have the regular opportunity to find a priest for confession, and enjoy the option of attending daily Mass. All of these things will disappear with the onset of summer, and habits built over the past nine months will disappear in a heartbeat.
Make a plan to help your sons get to Mass, but if possible, leave it up to him to make the final decision. Attendance can be done as a family (such as the Sunday obligation) but on other days, if going as a family, perhaps emphasize the togetherness over forcing Mass attendance. Consider looking up local confession times and arrive early for Mass (or stay after) so the family has the ability to choose to go to confession. The desire is there already for many, they just need a little assistance to accomplish the deed. As for prayer, family rosaries—perhaps in the car on the way here and there— three Hail Marys before bed, grace before meals, and the Angelus are a healthy launching pad to forming the foundation for mental prayer.
Ultimately, one has to be comfortable with the knowledge that we can neither plan for everything nor have the expectation of a “perfect summer.” Things will go wrong. Boys will have bad days. We will have bad days. But if we never cease to unfurl the banner of hope and we constantly strive to pursue excellence in every endeavor, it just may be the best summer yet, and that is a goal worth chasing.