Do you remember summer vacation when you were young? Take a moment to think about how you spent your time. Did you play outside? Swim in the pool? Build forts in the woods? Hang out at the beach with your friends? Try out a job you loved (or hated)? Read classic novels, comic books or trashy pulp fiction? See movies that inspired you? Go camping with your family?
These days, many kids spend the summer doing academic work, with math skills workbooks and reading lists designed to prevent the “brain-drain” that can accompany two months out of school. Some kids go for tutoring or summer school, either for remedial purposes or in hopes of getting some class requirements out of the way. Some take SAT or ACT preparation classes, hoping to raise their test scores. Some participate in “leadership camps.”
Often, teenagers spend their summers in internships or participating in experiences designed to build their resumes so that they’ll be more competitive when applying to colleges. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Millennial Branding in 2014, 55% of high school students feel pressure to gain work experience in high school. And 60% of the companies surveyed agreed that students need to focus on their careers in high school in order to be competitive for future internships and jobs.
For those students who can’t find or aren’t interested in internships, there are numerous travel and service opportunities. If you Google “teen travel and service trips,” you’ll get over 85 million results. And they all use phrases like “life-changing,” “extraordinary opportunity,” “develop meaningful relationships,” “explore humanity” – promising to help participants broaden their perspectives and gain real-world experience.
Last year, the Boston Globe characterized this transformation of summer as a change “from a time to kick back to a time to lean in.” Especially in upper middle class households, parents and children feel pressure to keep up with their peers, and resisting that pressure is difficult. When all the other students are registering to be counselors-in-training, booking service trips, and searching out internships, it’s hard to encourage your child to relax.
What are the effects of raising our children to “lean in” before they’ve even entered the work force? In a 2013 survey, American teenagers were found to be even more stressed than their parents, citing symptoms such as irritability, trouble sleeping, and changed eating habits. Psychologist Robert Leahy says in Slate that "the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s."
Author and former Stanford University dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims has written an impassioned plea on the New York Times Motherlode blog titled, “What’s Your Teenager Doing this Summer? In Defense of ‘Nothing.’” She recalls a time when summer’s very laziness encouraged “resourcefulness, imagination and something that is so scarce even amid plenty today: a sense of self.”
In fact, downtime has been proven to be valuable to business people, as well. Last summer, Forbes published an article called, “The Importance of Doing Nothing.” In it, Professor Manfred Kets DeVries states that “slacking off and setting aside regular periods of ‘doing nothing’ may be the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.” He posits that boredom often precedes periods of creativity and productivity.
This month, Italian high school teacher Cesare Catà posted his students’ summer homework assignment on Facebook, and it was subsequently published on the Huffington Post. Inspired by his own memories of the magic of summer, Catà made fifteen recommendations to his students, including that they spend time in quiet introspection, read as much as they possibly can, avoid things and people that bring negativity, and take time to dream.
These are suggestions that we should all follow. It’s important that we take the time to remember that we are raising the next generation of citizens, not just the next generation of workers. While we want our children to be competitive as they enter the work force, we also want them to be thoughtful, imaginative problem-solvers. We need them to be innovators who respect themselves and others and who are capable of interacting with one another in productive ways.
So this summer, sit in the backyard or on your front porch with your child. Read together. Watch the sun set. Listen to the birds. Talk to your child about your dreams, and ask him about his. Resist the urge to check your email. If your daughter says she’s bored, challenge her to figure out something to do (without turning on the television or computer). Take a walk together.
Doing nothing is sometimes hard to do, but it’s worth the effort.
This post was also published at GoLocalProv.