In Praise of Old-Fashioned Summers

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©. Johnson

This summer, I want every day to begin with a giant question mark.

The countdown is on for the end of the school year in Ontario – just three weeks to go. I watch the calendar nervously, wondering how I am going to survive the summer with energetic little kids and a job. Meanwhile, they are bouncing off the walls in anticipation of the fun and freedom they intend to have.

One thing’s for sure: I won’t be dedicating myself to their entertainment. I can relate to mom-of-four Melissa Fenton’s sense of exhaustion in her hilarious article, “10 ways to give your kids an honest-to-goodness 1970s summer.” She writes:

“As if we need more activities. As if I am sitting here, OK, really lying here in my end-of-school-year coma, thinking, ‘OMG! I CANNOT wait to tackle that homemade moon sand recipe we will dye ourselves with the skin of organic vegetables, then shape the homemade sand into a perfect replica of the Millennium Falcon!’”

No, I will be ignoring the ads for local museum, art, drama, and sports camps that promise to keep my kids entertained and out of my hair for eyebrow-raising prices, as well as the elaborate Pinterest ideas for summer family fun. Instead, I will turn to my own childhood for inspiration.

It was the early ‘90s, but I lived in an odd tech-free bubble, with no TV or Nintendo. How did my parents do it? They had four kids at home, often joined by my three cousins for a week or two at a time. There were children everywhere; the house was a permanent disaster; and we made the best memories of our lives. What was their secret?

Boredom is allowed.

Every morning started with us kids waking up and wondering, “What can I do today?” There was never a plan, and it was glorious. Maybe once a week Mom would take us to the library or plan a picnic lunch, but that was it. The rest of the time we roamed all day long, usually in our bathing suits from morning till night.

Be a parent, not a playmate.

I have no memory of my parents playing with me and my siblings. We did our own thing; they did theirs. This summer, when I’m not working, you’ll find me reading in the hammock drinking iced coffee. The default answer to game suggestions by kids is “No, thanks, but go ahead.” This is my time to recharge, too, but I’ll be around to bandage cuts as needed.

Forget the house.

Mud and pine needles in the front entrance, sand in the bathroom – these were summer staples. It’s not worth spending the summer trying to stay on top of housecleaning. If kids are traipsing in and out, it will get dirty and sticky, and that’s OK.

Stay outdoors.

My mother was known to lock the door and wave us away when we came knocking. “You can’t come in yet!” was a common refrain to hear shouted through the glass. Sometimes I do this to my kids, minus the locking, and while they may grumble for a few minutes, inevitably they find something to do.

Play with anything and everything.

We played with boxes, old lumber, nails, hammers, saws, buckets, ropes, sharpened sticks, pocket knives, and rusty tools we dug out of the ground. Some might call it a safety hazard, but it was a gold mine for us kids. Think treasure, not tetanus.

Snacks galore

I have fond memories of lying on my best friend’s dock in our bathing suits while eating salt and vinegar chips and reading Cosmo. Back then, we didn’t ask our parents if we could have a snack, let alone expect them to prepare it for us. We headed for the kitchen and scrounged. We made cookies and mixed lemonade from concentrate by the gallon. Sure, the kids aren’t noshing on organic hummus with gluten-free seed crackers, but they’re not pestering you.

We’ll plan the occasional day trip and play date, and go camping at some point, but mostly this summer will be about wide-open space, days that begin with a giant question mark, and the spontaneous adventures and games that will inevitably flourish.