My Kids Have Nothing to Do This Summer. Now What?

This 'Dear Christine' column offers tips for structuring your family's summer during the pandemic
July 6, 2020 Updated: July 6, 2020
In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email advice@christinecarter.com
Dear Christine,

Since school ended, my whole family is floundering. We have no summer plans. I’m feeling some pressure to make up for “COVID slump,” but I haven’t a clue how to do so. Neither of my teenagers have summer jobs or internships, and neither is interested in taking an online class. We need to find a purpose this summer—all of us. What, even, is the goal?

Warmly,
A Floundering Family

Dear Floundering,

You aren’t alone! Day-to-day life without structure and routine is hard. We human beings are creatures of habit, and when our routines are disrupted, we tend to feel anxious and agitated.

So, here’s the goal: Do something productive every day. Also, get into some semblance of a routine.

Even though your kids probably feel like there is “nothing to do,” they are going to feel better if they make themselves useful or do something creative every day. People feel good about the things that they do well. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have other sources of good feelings, but, truly, there are few better sources of self-esteem than doing something—anything—well.

Also, there’s so much to be done.

I’m guessing you noticed: It’s a mess out there. My kids are tired of people telling them that 2020 is going to go down in the history books. They know that this is an important historical moment on a lot of fronts. A lot of old institutions and social structures, including our kids’ educational structures, have been profoundly shaken. If your kids are like mine, they may feel angry about all that is wrong in the world, and they may blame “you boomers.” (For the record, kids, I’m not a boomer.)

But, seriously, this is no time for finger-pointing. Neither is it time to wallow in self-pity or to allow ourselves to be sidelined by despair or resignation. It’s time to create the world we want to live in. We all need to get involved in fixing all the things that are broken. We need to step up and engage. What do you as a family care most about? What do your kids care about most? What role do you each want to play in making the world a better place?

This summer offers a chance to get involved in a meaningful cause. It could be through activism, learning, growth, and self-reflection, which are also productive foundations for healthy change.

And the goals we set for the summer should rest on that foundation. What do we want to learn or accomplish? How do we want to make a difference?

We can ask our kids questions about what they want. We can encourage them to set goals and be guided by their personal motivations. What do they want to accomplish? What helps them feel like they are productive members of society and the family? What can they do every day to improve a skill that they value?

I don’t think we need to push our kids to achieve something big this summer, and I don’t think we need to be particularly high-performing ourselves during this crazy time. Let “doing something productive every day” be a low mountain to climb. No need to construct some amazing program for your kids to counter the “COVID slump.”

Again, this is about stepping up and engaging. Whatever they, and we, are interested in is fine. And as parents, a, say, consistently helping with dinner or emptying the dishwasher without being asked. This may not feel as meaningful to them as the other things they could do but it will make a big difference in our households, and our sanity as parents.

Creating Routines to Accomplish Goals

Should you exercise in the morning or afternoon? Check email before or after breakfast? Work on college applications during the week or on the weekends? Shower every day? Go to bed before midnight or play video games all night?

And for parents, this is even more important if we are managing (or just worrying about) our kids’ schedules.

This might seem crazy, but I ask my kids (and many of my clients) to construct their ideal day in increments of 30 minutes for themselves on a spreadsheet. I also do this for myself at the start of every new season, or when there is a big change afoot.

Developing a daily routine is about deciding how you will spend your time. More specifically, it’s about deciding what you will do and when you will do it. The key is to decide on these things one time instead of trying to figure out how to structure your day/week/summer every morning. Once constructed, we can lean on that structure to guide our daily life.

I like to think about our daily activities in terms of five big buckets:

Physical. How will we get some exercise? Is there something athletic we’d like to train for? How can we move our bodies throughout the day? What are other components of physical health that are important to me?

Emotional. How can we care for our psychological health by bringing some enjoyment into our daily life? How can we foster positive emotions like gratitude or awe? How can we connect with nature or pets or something that brings us peace or happiness?

Social. How can we connect with the people around us? This one is tricky during a pandemic, and it is also extraordinarily important. Teenagers need to connect with their peers. Similarly, most people need to connect with sources of emotional support outside of their immediate family. With creativity and determination this can be done outdoors in ways that lower the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Cognitive. Many of us get the intellectual stimulation we need through our work; kids can get it in myriad ways over the summer. What are they interested in reading? Learning more about? Can they get a jumpstart on their AP reading or SAT prep so they have less to worry about in the fall?

Spiritual or humanitarian. This is where our daily routine can connect back to engaging in something that brings us meaning or connects us to something larger than ourselves. Teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. Over and over, research shows that we feel good when we stop thinking about ourselves and support others.

Creating an ideal day that includes each of these aspects of well-being gives us something concrete to shoot for in a world of uncertainty. Once created, we don’t have to stick to it rigidly. Often, it’s not the plan that makes the difference, but the planning process. Having decided once, we don’t have to decide every day.

Floundering Family, your teens may or may not engage in deciding on their ideal day. They may or may not decide to be productive this summer. Either way, make sure they see you do these things and that you are clear with them what the larger goal is for the summer. As parents, often the best we can do is to teach through our own example. Fortunately, with teenagers, that is almost always the best place for us to start—and it is enough to make a difference in the long run.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction” (BenBella, 2020), former director of the GGSC, and served for many years as the author of its parenting blog, “Raising Happiness.” This article was first published by the Greater Good online magazine.