Sunday, May 2, 2010

The 'Summer List'

Our family started a summer project quite a few years ago – I think it was when our son was in late elementary or early junior high school. We continued with it, mostly during the summer for several years, and it became something I looked forward to with anticipation every summer. To some degree we still revisit it and have fun with it, but it's much less structured now.

Knowing how kids often get bored within a day or two of summer break, I remember thinking one year that we needed to try a ‘proactive’ approach to the “I’m bored!” scenario. I decided I would compile a list of tasks that I wanted Matthew, our son, to master that summer. Before unleashing this great plan on him, I remember asking him what fun things he’d like to do over summer break. I asked him if there was anything he had a particular interest in or would like to learn how to do. He shared some thoughts with me and Ken and I shared with him some tasks we wanted him to work on over the summer.

Apparently the idea of mastering 'the summer list' was challenging and different - just enough different to keep Matthew interested because it worked. For that summer and the following several summers he, his dad and I identified age-appropriate skills we thought worthy of attention. We recorded the list and posted it, and then every week or so Matthew would take on a new challenge. By being able to see the list before him and having the option to choose the one he wanted to do on a given day, I think he felt he had freedom and some control of the way the summer progressed. It helped the boredom blues tremendously.

The one item that is most clear in my memory happened the year Matthew got his Learner’s Permit. I told him I was going to choose a place for a ‘day trip’ for us. I would choose a location (a business) and his job was to drive us there (it was during the week and his dad was working, so it was just the two of us). Matthew's job was to find the address of the business, research the best way to get there, and drive me there himself. I told him he could get directions by any means he chose – he could call ahead, use a map or atlas or use the internet, but that it was HIS responsibility to make the plans and preparations. He did his homework and performed the tasks perfectly. We were proud of him and I believe he felt he had truly accomplished something.

This particular task was a great experience for our son because although we have traveled by car a great deal in his lifetime, prior to that he had never been responsible for driving us to a specific destination or choosing the route we would take to get there. It was a simple task, really, but as a young driver it gave him a lot of confidence. He learned he was capable of more than he realized and he saw that he was certainly up to the challenge. His confidence continued to grow and he has since driven through many cities and states and seems to be confident negotiating his way wherever he wants to go.

We did lots of other fun things, too. During one of those summers we also opened a checking account which he was responsible for maintaining. Matthew was only 14, I think – an age which is years before most banks even allow a minor to have a checking account. Yet, where there’s a will, there’s a way, as they say. I was not at all concerned about Matthew overdrawing his account. Ken and I simply wanted him to be comfortable with the nuances of a checking account so that once he went to college he would be prepared. As it turned out, he went to Australia several years before college and by the time he left for his trip, he had already had mastered his own VISA card, which proved to be invaluable to him during his three weeks in the South Pacific.

Now, if Matthew had been a child with a spending problem, we could not have turned him loose with a credit card at that age! But he has always been a conscientious spender and I truly believe that entrusting him with these kinds of responsibilities when he was ready was a valuable learning opportunity – for him and for us. With each task he mastered, we realized he was becoming more mature and more responsible. His handling of a given responsibility led to our giving him additional responsibilities which then led us to trust him even more. It was truly a win-win for all of us. I loved the summer lists!

One day (early on in this project process) the boy learned how to do laundry and he finally understood why I have all those different stacking baskets with clearly marked labels, like whites, dress clothes, etc. Word of advice: if you have your kids take on this task for the summer, 'rerun' the laundry episode on a regular basis. I’ve learned teenagers need to do laundry on a faily regular basis to remember all the intricacies of laundry instructions. I know some families who actually have their kids do their own laundry all the time beginning at about this age. I can see how that could make the transition to college life a lot easier for some kids.

We can’t turn kids loose with the keys to the Jag when they are 12 (and no, we don’t have a Jag). At the same time, if we don’t give them responsibility and show them that we trust them, how will they acquire those skills? If we give them responsibilities while they are still in our care (and under our roofs, so to speak), we can be a sounding board and help guide them in the process.

During the early years, we began with tasks such as setting the table, vacuuming and making different kinds of reservations on the phone. As we progressed, we tackled some items that did not thrill Matthew, but which were important, nonetheless. These included ironing a dress shirt, cooking basic foods and completely cleaning the bathroom (yes, toilet and all).

I remember ‘city driving’ was also covered around that time. We live in a small town and there usually aren’t many traffic challenges here! However, we live close to Cleveland and other large areas which provided opportunities to work on this area. (Side note: In the winter, even before he received his driver’s license we took him to large snowy and ice-caked parking lots to learn to drive in snow and ice.)

Matthew had a lot of great ideas that he wanted to pursue, as well. One summer he wanted to stay alone overnight in the house. As protective parents, his request to do this over the years had caused more than a little anxiety. Yet, we knew it had to happen sometime! When we felt he was responsible enough to handle it, we did allow him to spend the weekend at home by himself. I’m not sure who was more surprised – Matthew that we let him, or us, for consenting! I’m sure Ken and I gained as much or more than Matthew from this one.

I think if I were to offer any suggestions about this process, it would be to start at an earlier age. Even young elementary school kids have skills they want to learn or need to start learning. If we don’t teach kids, how will they know how to load the dishwasher properly or (Heaven forbid) how to clean the kitchen after supper by actually handwashing the dishes (this one should have been on our list but wasn’t!)?

Does this idea appeal to you? No matter what age your children or how many kids you have, there are probably skills you'd like to teach them. What items would your kids find on their 'summer lists'?

It’s never too late to learn something new. Even though Matthew has worked since he was 16 (and full-time each summer), there was still time to master new challenges. Now that the freshman year of college is over and only finals remain, he will soon be home. He has a full-time marketing internship this summer and will no doubt be quite busy. Still, I know of at least one item he had in mind previously that we never got around to doing. Hopefully this summer he’ll be able to tackle that challenge.

And along those lines, I feel it is my responsibility to give full disclosure here: I have recently learned of another ‘list’ Matthew is developing. He is now developing a list of items he wants to do or accomplish (a bucket list of sorts – only challenges he wants to face sooner rather than later). I don’t know what will end up on the list, but the last time we saw him we heard items such as skydiving and bungee jumping were being thrown around. Like I said: full disclosure. I just want you to know that sometimes kids become very confident as a result of their successful accomplishments. And while that IS the goal and we DO want them to feel confident, this confidence can create challenges within OURSELVES because perhaps WE’RE not ready for them to take that next challenge. Ah, the joys of parenthood! Letting go. It's been on my list for quite a few summers. I still find that one challenging.


Tina said...

You really should consider writing a parenting book! You guys are awesome parents. The summer list is such a great idea!

Trent Infield said...

I am surprised I was never made privy to this list. Based on my experiences I suspect that "Proficiency in the moving of furniture and logistics therein" was on the list every summer !

Vanessa said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. We are far from experts - especially having only one child! I can tell you we have had a lot of FUN parenting, though! We've tried to learn from our mistakes and sometimes we've learned more from what DIDN'T work than what did...
Thanks for writing. (-:

Vanessa said...

You are absolutely right - one can never have enough experience in moving furniture! And might I say that you mastered that task quite well! It must have been all the opportunities you got to practice!
Your 'Other' Mom (-:

smucker.18 said...

I agree with Trent!

Vanessa said...

You guys are so funny! Just wait until you see what I have on your lists for THIS summer! Be afraid, be very afraid! (I am, of course, kidding!)