Summer. Warm weather, daylight hours getting longer, and no more homework and school projects. What a relief! But for many children and parents, living outside the well-predicted school year routine could be profoundly stressful. When homework, soccer classes and ballet rehearsals fill up the family’s schedule, many parents find it easier to structure other areas in their children’s life, such as eating well, being physically active, and getting enough sleep.
But, when the kids go out of their routine, these important aspects of healthy living, may easily become deregulated. For many families, the longer hours together demand more flexibility in eating and sleep habits, but often this flexibility can result in an unbalanced schedule, greater parental concerns, repeated boundary testing, confusion and resentment.
Children are accustomed to having a regular routine, and most of them thrive when the expectations are simple and clear. For children’s developing brains, it is quite difficult to differentiate between a “rules included” time and a “no-rules” period. As adults, we often celebrate the opportunity of being less strict and planned with our time. In a vacation context, adults would find it easy to detect when they are hungry or full and when they need to go to bed.
However, children have a lower ability to correctly recognize their bodily situation. Consequently, they are more susceptible to overexertion. Parents are often surprised of their children’s melt-downs. Often, a child gradually becomes hungry or tired, but this information is missed when everyone is busy having fun. In addition, more social gatherings, trips, and spontaneity call for unregulated behavior and more eating out. Some parents are concerned that their children will gain extra weight or will eat an excessive amount of unhealthy foods during the summer. Additionally, more light outside may clash with regular bedtime hours, leading children to have less sleeping hours than usual.
How can parents make sure their kids eat, exercise and sleep well during summer vacation? As a child psychologist, and as the mother of three kids who has been making efforts to enjoy fun and healthy family vacations for more than a decade now, I have found the following ideas helpful in balancing the innate freedom of a vacation and children’s developmental need of a well-planned and expected routine:
Figure out what your vision is for the summer break: Is it more important for you to take the kids on trips, or to hang out more locally with friends and relatives that you do not get to spend time with during the year? How much work and other engagements could you postpone until the end of August? How many hours of fun physical activity are reasonable? What is most important to you in terms of regular sleeping hours, the nutrients your children receive, and the structure of meals?
For some parents, for example, 8-10 pm are important working hours in which they complete many projects, and thus keeping the bedtime routine is a must, whereas other families do not mind eating their dinner while picnicking at the park. Concentrate on the healthy habits you would like mostly to preserve over the summer break. For instance, traveling more with kids may result in eating more fast food than you typically do. These situations call for some values to take precedence over others, based on the parents’ standards.
Think ahead of the approaches you intend to use when faced with these events, and make sure your parental toolbox of efficient responses is wide enough. Have more easy-to-go food with you, decide on a bedtime, tell the kids how much TV and sweets they are allowed to have each week and help them plan accordingly. Ahead of time, make sure you know what your plans are and make the necessary arrangements.
Many children, for instance, are surprisingly hungry after a short swim in the pool, or have a harder time leaving home for an activity when they have been watching TV more than usual. When I see parents’ interactions with their children, I try to collect ideas for additional tactics that I like, add them to my repertoire, and use them appropriately.
You had an idea how your day would look like, and then things went differently than expected? Don’t worry about it! Go with the flow and adapt your plans accordingly. For example, if you are planning to meet friends in the park but they are running late, a relative arrives late for a visit, kids request eating something different than you prepared them – instead of pushing life to be what you had planned, allow yourself to adapt more easily and quickly to changes.
Too many days of our lives are rushed in running to work and school, doing chores, and this may cause us to not eat right, not exercising enough and not sleeping enough, due to the overwhelming plethora of responsibilities we have. The summer break is a wonderful opportunity to recalibrate your schedule to your family needs as well as reevaluate your own routine health-wise. I am often reminded by my kids and by my sometimes-jumbled schedule of a five-person family, the importance of spontaneity and adaptations in life.
Being a parent who tries to make healthy choices for your family, you are probably over-burdened and exhausted by this time of the year. Embrace the privilege of being able to rest, hang out with your family, and have homework-stress-free time! Embrace the breaks you are forced to take due to your children’ time off. Perceive summer vacation as leisure time that allows your family and yourself to reconnect with your bodies more healthily, to eat better, sleep more, exercise regularly, meditate and just chill out.
Enjoying yourself and treating your body as well as your children’s respectfully will promise you a better year once you return to being busy with emails, phone calls and additional assignments.
Living healthily and educating our children to do so themselves, is an important value for all parents, however many are unsure of what the best ways are to accomplish this. Although summer break is too often coined with boundary breaking and lack of structure, it should be better perceived as an opening for a healthier family lifestyle and an opportunity to support our children’s adaptation and healthier development.