Back in April, Denise Caron-Quinn, Founder and Director of In Order to Succeed, reached out to me to ask if I wanted to collaborate on writing a piece about how students could organize their workspaces during distance learning. I eagerly agreed…but then, as so often has happened these past few months, I just didn’t have enough gas in the tank to follow through. I’m a forty-year-old adult with a Master’s degree and a twenty-year career in Education, I consider myself to be a hard-working professional…and I was absolutely flattened.
A year—or even six months—ago, it would have been impossible for most of us to imagine living in our current moment. The realities of COVID-19, and the incredible, indelible impact it’s had on our daily routines, have completely changed the way we live. Although there is a profound sense of hopefulness that we’ll be able to return to “normal” when a vaccine can be mass-produced, not knowing when that will happen creates a sense of powerlessness and fear that is unsettling and anxiety producing. In an interview with Slate’s Charles Duhigg, Bruce Felier, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, notes that, during his year-long recovery from cancer, he and his family “found ourselves in a situation that everybody finds themselves in, in which the old rules no longer apply and the new rules have not been written.” The same could be said for Americans living through the spring of COVID. For parents, the past few months have undoubtedly presented moments of joy and of frustration. Many families have found that their quarantine time together, while certainly bringing them closer, has also led to an increase in arguments, disagreements, and a non-infrequent need to retreat to everyone’s own corner.
For children (particularly for members of the Class of 2020), the cancellation of school activities and the loss of the soothing balm of their daily routine has upended their lives. As a middle school teacher, I have seen their sadness first-hand, as yawning faces fill up my Zoom calls each day and as students, who have ostensibly reached out for video extra-help sessions, talk to me instead about how much they miss their friends and teachers.
Now, here we are. It’s June. Summer vacation is on the horizon for many students and has already begun for others. We are all looking forward to a few months’ worth of rest and relaxation; to some time to recharge before returning to whatever the 2020-2021 school year will bring. (Distance? In person? Hybrid? Who knows?!) But despite their excitement, many of our children find that layers of disappointment keep being added to their COVID cake. Beloved sleepaway camps are cancelled. Summertime soccer fields will sit vacant. That trip to visit relatives must be postponed. So many of the activities that make summer “summer” won’t happen this year. Yet again, tears and frustration seem to be the order of the moment.
When most people think of an “organization consultant,” they think of the work of organizing: clearing out detritus, finding solutions for walk-in closets, and helping to plan moves and other major life changes. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: while our professional work can often focus on the physical cataloging of “stuff,” our true obsession is with helping families build and develop new, healthy, and sustainable routines. While these routines are important for adults, they are also very necessary for children. In their discussion of a 50-year research review, the American Psychological Association notes that “family routines and rituals are powerful organizers of family life that offer stability during times of stress and transition.” So: as we head into the Summer of 2020—the “Summer of the Unknown”—how can we engage with family routines and rituals to make our children’s lives easier and our family life more stress-free?
Create your own summer routines and rituals: My brother, Joe, and his partner, Ashley, are raising four unbelievable kids up in Maine. They have engaged in some incredible routine-building over the course of the last few weeks. One of my favorites involves good ol’ backyard camping: they pitched a tent in a newly-cleared space, and the kids have been sleeping outside under the stars. The kids love it, the parents love it…and it’s such a simple way to switch things up.
While nobody is suggesting that you recreate a six-week sleepaway camp at home (especially after being burdened with recreating school at home!), it’s easy (and inexpensive) enough to transition your child’s distance-learning setup to a craft space. All you need are a few small plastic bins, some supplies (Amazon offers tons of ready-made craft sets for purchase and home delivery), and a consistent day each week (or time each day) to let your child build and create. Blocks and Legos work too…and so does software like SketchUp. YouTube is full of cool tutorials (origami, anyone?); I know that several of my students have been playing around with stop-motion animation. And we can’t forget fitness; from riding bikes around the neighborhood to the New York Times’ “How to Build Muscle in Nine Minutes” workout (kids and teens can do it, too!), there are so many resources for keeping in shape…and so much of a benefit to schedule a time each day to do so.
Whatever the activity, make sure that there’s a dedicated space and time for it to take place and remember: the mess is part of the learning (and the cleaning up presents so many wonderful opportunities to learn responsibility!).
Choice is key: We do better, and are more dialed in, when we can choose our own activities. The same is true for young people. Instead of generating your own family schedule this summer, sit down with your child and collaborate. (If you want a laugh, check out the manifesto that thirteen-year-old Leo Rainey wrote to his parents’ quarantine overscheduling, which his mom, Claire Campbell, recently published on
Slate.) Remember that not every second of every day must be packed with activities; although kids will complain about “being bored,” it is in those moments of boredom when our creative minds run wild.
Rearrange and reconfigure: A few weeks into quarantine, one of my advisees excitedly announced to our Zoom that she and her dad were redecorating the “room under the stairs.” It wasn’t a huge room, but they were going to make it into a small nook for playing and reading. They painted, collected some furniture from around the house, and voilà: a brand-new (actually, a newly-repurposed) space!
Believe me: I’m not talking feng shui or Kondo-ification here. Neither you nor I have the mental or emotional strength right now to do anything like that! But even something as simple as moving a bureau catty-corner to a wall can make a huge difference. And, again: let your child lead the way. Working out ideas to restructure and repurpose can be fun!
Let it go!: My next-door neighbors have had two of their adult children living in quarantine with them, so, like all thoughtful parents, they recently rented a dumpster and directed Casey and Kevin to “get rid of all this junk we don’t need.” Believe me: organizational consultants dream of this, and you can check out some of the posts on our IOTS blog for tips and tricks. For some reason, I’ve got a collection of boxes in my basement (what did I think I’d need this many boxes for?), so one of my activities next week is going to be to flatten those boxes and take them out to recycling. A little goes a long way…especially when you have help!
Finally: Leave school out of the equation and let your children be: I recently interviewed Judith Warner, author of And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, for the Pequot Library here in Southport, Connecticut. During our conversation, Ms. Warner spoke about the challenges of the Summer of the Unknown. “The most important thing parents have to keep in mind,” she said, “is that their relationship with their children is more important than whatever activity they should be doing or achievement they should be acquiring…A lot of parents right now…are worried that their kids are going to be falling behind academically because of the way the school year ended, and want to pile on during the summer…That’s the biggest mistake they can make.” Ms. Warner suggests that encouraging children to read is, of course, important—but that trying to cram in academic work will be a losing proposition. As a teacher, I echo this advice: this summer, let your kids be kids—for their sake, and for your sake!
There’s no way around it: this summer will be tough for all of us. But sticking to a schedule, engaging in some fun new routines, letting your child choose, and forgetting about school for a bit are some great ways to make it as smooth as possible. (And please feel free to connect with me if you have any additional tips and tricks to add to this piece—we’d love to make as many resources as possible available!) Enjoy the long days of summer…and do everything you can to make them last!
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