By contributing writer Susan Sachs Lipman, author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World.
The flood of school-related papers seems to come earlier each year — the “first day” packets, the emergency and permission forms, the sports and other schedules. The start of school seems earlier, too — it’s up to mid-August in my neck of the woods.
A peruse around the internet shows that I’m not alone in feeling dismay at the loss of the long and leisurely summer. Parents in Chicago and Newburyport, Mass., successfully lobbied their school districts to start school after Labor Day. Legislators in many states hotly debate back-to-school dates each year.
Hopefully, you were fortunate to have had some leisurely family time this summer. Or, at the very least, some time free from homework, schedules, transportation, meetings, appointments, a busy calendar and a frazzled household. No matter when Back-to-School hits for you, it can be a challenge to keep the pace and spirit of summer in your family. Here are a couple of ideas for taming fall frenzy.
Create Unstructured Family Time
Consider turning down the occasional invitation or activity to ensure that your family has some time by itself. Then devote to that time by not answering the phone and emails, and putting away the electronics and the to-do list. Families need to regroup and simply have unstructured time together – to play, to talk, to inadvertently create the small instances that go into the family memory bank.
It is the little things that tend to bond families, and these often occur during unstructured time. This can be time to explore a craft or make music, just for the fun of it – in contrast to being in “achievement mode.” It can be a time to have a family game night or be outside in nature, to tell stories that meander as you do, or to merely observe the world.
In earlier cultures, it was more common for people to take a break from the everyday. Today, in our 24/7 world, we sometimes have to create that time for ourselves and our families, in order to refresh, as well as re-engage with one another. If need be, schedule a family night on the calendar.
Eat As Many Meals As Possible Together
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating. Mealtimes are often the only times families have together. It can be incredibly grounding to just sit down all together at the end of the day and share triumphs and thoughts.
It can take some planning to find the time between activities and work for everyone to come together, as well as the time to plan and prepare meals. If you enjoy cooking, doing so as a family can provide fun bonding time. If not, aim to keep weeknight meals simple and buy what you need for a few meals at once, to keep cooking and shopping times down, as well as costs.
You can also make double batches of food, and then have the leftovers the next night. Or pick up take-out food on your way back into the house. While home-cooked meals are great, the time spent together is even more vital.
Spend Time in Nature Together
Nature’s schedule is so much broader than our busy one, that one can’t help but gain a little perspective simply by being outside. And, chances are that when you’re outside as a family, you’re getting some fresh air, physical beauty, and exercise, which enliven the spirit as well as help create healthy habits for everyone.
For some children, nature is where they feel happiest, and there are plenty of ways to enhance their experience of nature, whether through creating poetry or art out of what is observed, collecting items to display at home, playing games like Tag and Hide ‘n Seek, building forts, watching the stars, or telling stories and playing word games together while on walks.
Other families might enjoy biking, rollerblading or water sports as a way to be active together and do something a bit special. Chances are, even if you live in a city, there’s a bit of nature nearby.
Cultivate Friendships With All Different People
Have people in your life who are different ages than you, or whom you don’t know through your child.
Sometimes what gets lost as a parent is a sense of who we are as people. People with whom me might share non-parenting interests can help us reconnect with that part of ourselves and with a broader range of interests and ideas than may be prevalent in the immediate circle of school.
People who don’t have school-age children may be less harried themselves, so that you can’t help but slow down in their presence. Perhaps there is a neighbor or friend with whom your family would enjoy taking a walk or doing a craft.
Especially if there are no grandparents nearby, a relationship with someone older can be a wonderful, life-enlarging experience for a child. Many senior facilities welcome young visitors with a parent. Performing a service, such as visiting a shut-in, is an excellent way to slow down, gain perspective and make a friend.
Say “No” to More Things
We parents don’t have to volunteer to take on more at work, or to serve on every school committee that needs us. Periodically assess your needs and your output and, if something is out of balance, readjust.
Likewise, children don’t have to sign up for a lot of activities. Often, children are over-scheduled to the point of creating stress for the whole family.
Perhaps explore one or two activities at a time, and carefully consider costs and benefits before adding any new ones. It may help to assure yourself that it is usually not the last opportunity for your child to enjoy ballet or soccer. More pleasure may come from devotion to one thing at a time.
Evaluate Your Own Desires
Are you signing your child up for activities you would have liked for yourself? While exposure to many things is delightful and, indeed, a luxury, too much of a good thing can backfire.
Try to be clear about whether your own needs or anxieties about your child’s achievement are fueling a desire to over-schedule activities. Often what children want, when asked, is simply more unstructured time with their siblings, friends, or parents.
Make Time for Yourself and Your Spouse
This is often the first thing that gets bumped off the list of priorities. Adults who are burned out have no resources left for their children. Perhaps, having cleared more time for family time, some self and couple time can emerge as well.
If need be, schedule time to spend alone, as a couple, or with friends from other parts of your life, even if you can only do so once a month. Consider doing more family activities that, while age-appropriate, are not necessarily child-focused. Sometimes children come along on our activities more readily than we expect them to, and the results can be rewarding for everyone.
Get Enough Sleep
Missing out on sleep puts everyone in a bad mood, which can add to daily stress. Try to have a regular bedtime for children and for yourself. If work remains to be done into the night, tell yourself it can wait until tomorrow.
If there’s time, a nice routine before bed, such as reading out loud (to children of any age) can be calming and can put a nice cap on the day, which helps everyone get to sleep better.
Let Children be Children
Sometimes, in our rush toward achievement, we forget what it is like to be a child. Childhood still lasts about 18 years, which leaves plenty of time for structured activities.
Some unstructured time for children (to be alone, as well as with the family) is desirable. Don’t be afraid to let your child have down time, to daydream, or explore on his or her own. To even — be bored.
Every activity doesn’t have to lead to a future goal. And every moment doesn’t have to provide outside entertainment. In fact, our tendency to over-schedule and over-stimulate children can create undue stress for them, as well as the inability to simply entertain themselves, play freely, tolerate stillness, or discover their own inner compasses — who they are and what they like to do.
I adapted these tips from my recent book, Fed Up with Frenzy, which contains 300+ fun family activities and slowing techniques. I’m wishing you a slow September!
Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which grew out of her award-winning blog, Slow Family Online. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog and the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog and is the Social Media Director for the Children & Nature Network, Bookboard digital children’s book library, and Parents Place agency. A longtime Girl Scout leader, Suz enjoys gardening, hiking, soap crafting and food canning. She lives with her husband and daughter in Mill Valley, California.
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman