When I was little, I was lucky enough to live on a dead end street that backed up to the old town cemetery. Since this was our daily norm, it never seemed creepy to me and we used it as an extended yard perfect for hide and go seek, flashlight tag, cutting across to neighbor’s houses and climbing in trees. I’m sure there are some who might consider this disrespectful, but I tend to think that if we could all choose, we’d actually prefer our final resting places be full of joy and playfulness rather than solemnity and grief. Besides, the cemetery hadn’t been used in centuries so at least it was getting some visitors this way.
In any case, we would head out in the morning, sometimes with a backpack full of supplies and other times with only the clothes on our back, and we’d return when we got hungry. We had an imaginary treehouse in the cemetery where we lived in our own magical world. We’d pretend we were living in colonial times or that we were runaways living off the land. We blazed a trail beyond one end of the stonewall that came out at a pond where we hung a rope swing and spent hours throwing rocks into the water. We walked to the gas station to buy candy, sold lemonade along the bike path, and read books on a towel in the backyard. I don’t remember anything extravagant and I don’t remember tons of activities. Sure there were a few sessions of swim lessons and a week of soccer camp scattered here and there, but most of the summer was completely wide open.
My kids are still too young to spend hours free ranging through our neighborhood but someday they will be old enough and that’s exactly how I see them spending their summers. They will swim off the bridge at the town landing. They’ll go fishing in the river. There will be penny candy and bikes and skinned knees and an impatient wait in line at the hotdog stand. It’s a long way off still but that doesn’t mean that it’s not time to lay the groundwork.
There’s a lot of chatter lately about simplifying our lives, simplifying childhood, purging excess and returning to our roots. But how do we do it? How do we make it happen when everything else continues to move so quickly? By instilling the values of simplicity and patience now, I am hoping to raise boys who return to simplicity as they get older.
Here’s what I’m doing this summer to simplify our lives.
First, we’re limiting screen time. This isn’t really specific to summer but it is easier to do when the weather is kind and the sun is up late. We are not a screen-free home (but power to you if you are; I am in awe of you!) but I limit screen-time strategically. Our kids usually get to watch 20 minutes after dinner while I’m putting away laundry and cleaning up. (Just for context here, remember that The Captain is more often than not away on the tugboat so it is just me and the kiddlywinks). Sometimes Little Bear will get to watch 20 minutes in the morning while Junior is at school and I exercise, but honestly he doesn’t have much patience for it and I try to actively encourage his disinterest when he wanders in halfway through his show and announces he’s all done. I find most of my success in limiting screen-time comes from setting concrete limits in advance, explaining them to the kids so that they know what to expect and then sticking to the limits come hell or high water.
Another way I’m simplifying is by becoming a more distant observer. Like I said, my kids are too young to totally free range, but I’m preparing them for it by keeping my distance. I try to let them explore our neighborhood on their own. When they play in our backyard, I supervise from the kitchen and only step in if someone is crying or hurt. When they are exploring further afield, I hang back and let them lead the way. I keep an eye out for safety risks but mostly I let them do their thing without feeling like I’m breathing down their necks. It’s simpler for them and it’s easier for me. It takes a lot of work to be a helicopter mom! Some might call it the Lazy Mom approach to parenting but we didn’t come across it by way of sheer laziness. There’s some forethought involved, I promise.
Summer is also the time to go outside for extended periods, sometimes all day long. I plan to take advantage of the long days and warm weather while we’ve got them. Remember my tips for getting out the door for a beach day in 20 minutes or less? I go the same route with our daypack. I keep it stocked with a quick-drying change of clothes for each kid, a few ready-to-eat snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and a basic first aid kit. I also keep one of my larger sarongs in there to use as a picnic blanket or to string in trees for shade. We can be ready for a day out of the house as quickly as it takes me to fill our water bottles and throw some sandwiches together. It’s easy to become very rooted to the house and your neighborhood, but don’t be afraid to head out for the entire day. Go to the woods or the lake or the river or the beach. If your clan gets bored of one, head to another. Make it special with a stop at the ice cream store or the burger shack. Heck, my kids think it’s special just to run into a gas station to buy a ten-cent lollipop.
Which brings me to my next goal: simplify our eating. I am generally very engaged in healthy eating and I spend a lot of time in our kitchen cooking three meals a day. But come summer? I’m out. All it takes is some marinated chicken to have a quick, healthy dinner on the table in under half an hour. Grill it up, serve with some corn on the cob, add a salad and you’re done. My kids are usually great eaters, but they do love their carbs. The other night I was having an internal debate over what to serve alongside their chicken and corn. Noodles? Rice? Rice pilaf? Roasted potatoes? Ugh, all would require dishes and time and cooking. And then I had my epiphany moment, why all the stress about what carbs my kids are going to eat tonight? They love toast with butter, so why would I go through the motions of making a box of rice pilaf when that’s really not much different than toast with butter in the first place and there’s a loaf of bread sitting right there on the counter? Simple meals are the name of our game this summer. Yogurt and granola for breakfast? Check. Sandwiches or bagels with cream cheese on the go at lunchtime? Got it. Something quick on the grill with some fresh veggies alongside? All done. Less time cooking means more time for playing and getting outside.
And finally, this summer we are reaching a milestone. I’m letting go of our schedule. Ok, not totally. Phew. But for the first time in four years, neither kid requires a nap. Sure, they may be more pleasant after a nice long rest, but this summer I’m relaxing our schedule and going with the flow more. We can skip naps. We can stay up late or go to bed early. We can make a schedule that works for us and when it stops working, we’ll make a new one. Last summer I clung to our schedule by necessity. Without afternoon naps, the boys would crumble. Up past his bedtime, Little Bear would dissolve into tears. But more recently, the boys have been more adaptable. We have more freedom and this summer, we’re going to take advantage of it.
By simplifying our summer, we strip it down to its roots. How do I want to remember our summer? How do I want the kids to remember it? To us, summer is about freedom, adventure and yes, the occasional indulgence. We’ll spend long days at the beach and on the boat. We’ll eat sweets and watch the stars come out. We’ll hunt lightning bugs. We’ll build an obstacle course in the backyard. We’ll let the saltwater dry in our hair.
How do you want to remember your summer?