Reader, I'm an introvert. Sustained interaction with anyone -- even my own beloved offspring -- leaves me drained and blatantly grumpy, and sometimes even situationally depressed. I need strategies that generate communal ease and promote co-existence, while keeping intensely focused interaction punctuated rather than constant (and somehow allow me to shoehorn in my work-from-home work). Now that my kids are seven, eleven, and thirteen, I think I've finally got a system down.
First, I should tell you a bit about my kids, if you don't know them. Iz, my eldest, is newly a teen. So she's spending increasing amounts of time on her own, but is still very much part of our crew. For now. Leo, the eleven-year-old, is autistic, social, silly, and fun, and needs someone with him at all times for his own safety. I've already written about making sure Leo and I are ready for summer, and I'm still always looking for new strategies like on-the-fly visual schedules for unpredictable activities, but It's important to put Leo's summer scenario in a full-family context. And then there's our youngest, Mali, who is an in-your-face extrovert. She needs interaction. She craves it. And she actually needs the most handling, when it comes to balancing my needs with those of the kids.
Their summer is sprinkled with camps and trips and a dash of summer school for Leo, but there's mostly a whole lot of me + three kids in various combinations. And I do spend a lot of 1:1 time, 1:2 time, and 1:3 time. But sometimes we need to be apart while we're together, and this is how we do it.
We watch a lot of TV and movies and clips. Screen time FTW! Interactions with culturally literate children are a delight for those of us who exist within the realm of geekdom, and I take my responsibility as their guide quite seriously. I look for shows that are cleverly written and not mean-sprited -- witty and silly are bonuses. The remaining pool is smaller than you might think, and often means reaching back to series like Kim Possible and early Simpsons, or classic movies like Young Frankenstein and Singin' in the Rain. We're working our way through Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doctor Who, coupled with doses of Penguins of Madagascar and Phineas & Ferb. And of course we are fully conversant with the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings oeuvres. (How thrilled am I that Leo's current favorite YouTube clip is Darth Vader Goes to Disneyland? Not as thrilled as Leo every time he watches it.)
Independent time is encouraged. As much as possible. So I can get work done while they're "working" too. For Leo, this usually means using his iPad. Which is great! Independent play is a challenge for him otherwise, so I don't mind him diving into his favorite apps and videos, though I do keep an eye on him to make sure he hasn't accidentally found YouTube videos of questionable merit. Right now he's obsessed with two apps: Toca Train (cute 3D interactive train simulation) and Word Wall (multi-activity word recognition and spelling app).
Mali and Iz are also iPad/iDevice fans. Mali usually watches the daily science-and-history movie/quiz app from BrainPop before she dives into free play, and she is currently out-of-her mind excited about Pixar's new Brave interactive storybook and comic apps. She's also a Zombie Farm master. Iz rocks the games as well, and also tends towards Peterson's Birds, Khan Academy (K-12 online video lessons on near any academic subject), and using her Kindle to gnaw through her new high school's recommended summer book list.
The girls like IRL books, too, which I encourage as books keep them very occupied. I tend nudge them towards fun, funny, yet good-for-you books like Sean Connolly's The Book of Perfectly Perilous Math and The Way Things Work, which they do like -- but Mali is on a serious graphic novel phase, reading Asterix and Bone repeatedly, and Iz is exploring trashy teen novels with age-appropriate gusto. (Leo continues to prefer book apps like Dr. Seuss series and Moo Baa La La La.)
Another way I encourage my kids to take advantage of the summer's long stretches of free time is the time-honored mommy-generated activity starve-out. When they tell me they're bored and there's nothing to do in this house, and after I stop laughing, I assure them they can figure something out on their own. Which is why Iz has been watching videos of her favorite songs and doing an impressive job of figuring out how to play them on the piano, and Mali has built and entire shoebox town -- complete with Thumb Tack Palace -- along one side of our living room. Whereas Leo has recently become amazingly adept at playing wall ball on his own -- an accomplishment for a boy who has only recently developed the gross motor coordination to catch a ball, and somewhat less charming when we're woken by what sounds like a rousing basketball game in our bathroom (Leo's take: good wall, good echo).
Despite all this wonderful together media- & independent time that allows me to work in parallel with parenting, I am often weary of being tethered to my computer. I hanker for a good excursions -- which the kids' being out of school gives us an excuse to do. Whether day trips or road trips, car time is one of my preferred ways to be with my kids. Knowing that we can get each other's attention at any time takes the urgency out of communication and lets it flow at a pace I find much less stressful, with deeper and more productive exchanges than often happen elsewhere.
We also listen to a lot of books on tape in the car. More of the geek indoctrination, with the bonus that we're all familiar with the original versions of culurally significant stories. And as we're presuming competence with Leo, this means he's got the chance to absorb them in depth, too. We recently finished all seven Harry Potter books, and are just finishing Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series -- which I thought might be too abstruse for seven-year-old Mali, but which she continues to demand with as much enthusiasm as her thirteen-year-old sister.
And then there's one of my favorite strategies of all -- inviting someone else over. While this might seem counter-intuitive from an introvert's perspective, it actually redirects the kids' social focus from me to someone else, whether our guest is one of my friends or one of the kids'. I guess this is my way of confessing that, visitors, I don't just love you, I need you. And so do my kids, so that being with them all day every day won't leave me running on empty, emotionally.
Don't get me wrong -- I love spending time with my kids. They're good company. I just can't be "on" 100% of the day for them, or I'd slowly implode and (metaphorically) poison everyone's air. So I manage our time carefully during summer, to ensure I stay even-keeled and the kids remain reasonably content. If you get where I'm coming from, I'd love to hear about your own take on balancing summer free time, parenting, and introversion.
What other parents say:
- Beth Arky at Child Mind Institute: Strategies for a Successful Summer Break
- Modern Mom: Managing Summer Stress
- Diary of a Teacher-Mom: Reading and Writing for Summer Fun
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