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How should kids spend their summer? Not in AP classes

A boy skates at sunset in Izmir, Turkiye on July 4, 2023. (Lokman Ä°lhan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A boy skates at sunset in Izmir, Turkiye on July 4, 2023. (Lokman Ä°lhan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

For what seemed like the 100th time last month, a parent asked me, “What should my child be doing this summer?” It's a reasonable question to ask a child psychologist. Some parents were eager to enroll their high-achieving students in extra AP classes. Others worried their children with learning differences might need remedial work.

A few expressed concerns that, without structure, their children would play video games endlessly. In various ways, parents told me that without adult intervention, their children would become slothful, incompetent or unproductive by the end of the summer.

I’ve spent the last few years studying kids who couldn’t care less — and while there is no single reason why kids become unmotivated, I did find a contributing factor. Many kids these days have too much pressure and not enough responsibility.

Pressure — the emotional stress parents and society put on children — is often related to things like academic performance, sports, cultural standards and appearance. It contributes to increased rates of depression in youth.  At the same time, kids have become less responsible. Only 28% of kids are expected to do chores, down from 82% decades ago, and fewer teens have summer jobs than ever before.

Only 28% of kids are expected to do chores, down from 82% decades ago ...

Those of us raised decades ago may have had too much of the opposite — too little pressure and too much responsibility. My parents had no expectations about college or activities. No AP classes were offered at my high school in Wisconsin. Summer programs only existed for students who needed significant remediation. My biggest summertime pleasure was listening for the ice cream truck jingle and convincing my mom to treat us to crunchy Good Humor bars instead of cheap firecracker popsicles.

Older kids in the neighborhood were responsible for entertaining themselves as well as their younger siblings. Some kids organized kickball games. When there were no friends around, I picked up a book. Not because of a summer reading list (there weren’t any) but because, if I didn’t have anything to do, I was told to either make myself useful or find something to read.  As I got older, I had summer jobs — from babysitting to working in the library. By the time I reached college, I wasn’t surprised that a lot of college, and eventually my career, would include drudgery, hard work and few rewards.

I’m not suggesting we go back to free-range childhood summers. In fact, some of the current reasons for parents’ behaviors are valid. Kids’ academic skills do tend to slide over the summer, though less than we once thought. The pandemic did leave its mark on children’s learning, and this is particularly true for students already at risk for educational disparities: students of color, students with disabilities, English learners and students from low-income households.

The unmotivated adolescent who wasn’t sure about college before a summer working at Dunkin Donuts often returns to school ready to look at other options for adulthood.

I believe there’s a middle ground. First, know what your child needs and what they’re good at doing. Talk to your child. What would they do if time and money were no object? Summer should be about building on a child’s strengths.

Second, use the flexibility of summer scheduling to help your child become more dependent on intrinsic motivations (where the task itself is the reward) instead of extrinsic motivations (where the task is done in order to earn a reward). Summer can be a place where kids explore the things that are intrinsically motivating. And it’s not just a lack of pressure that is important — it’s time. Make sure you build plenty of space into the schedule to do nothing much at all. That’s when kids are more likely to pick up a book, fiddle with dad’s old bass guitar or practice hitting a tennis ball against the garage door. These seemingly mindless activities help kids find the things that add meaning to their lives.

Finally, make summer a place where pleasure and responsibility come together. I find that many parents would prefer their high school students spend the summer taking extra AP classes rather than working an entry-level job, but rarely are more AP classes the key to anyone’s success.  In fact, most adolescents enjoy their first jobs, especially summer jobs like working at an ice cream shop, a farm or lifeguarding. Work is a great source of motivation and life skills, like showing up on time and planning ahead. The unmotivated adolescent who wasn’t sure about college before a summer working at Dunkin Donuts often returns to school ready to look at other options for adulthood. Same goes for the 6th grader who spent some of the summer working as a mother’s helper for the neighbor’s toddler.

Not every one of these suggestions works for every child. Some amount of remedial work might be necessary for certain kids and that’s important, too. But I recommend putting both the pleasure and responsibility back into summer. Get a summer job. Spend time practicing something new. Mow the lawn. Hang out with friends by the pool. Put the pressure aside at least until September.

Until then, I’ll be listening for the jingle of the ice cream truck.

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Related:

Ellen Braaten Cognoscenti contributor
Ellen Braaten is a child psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. She is also the author of "Bright Kids Who Could Care Less: How to Rekindle Your Child's Motivation."

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