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June 6, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 122

How Much Structure Should Kids Have in the Summer?

Episode 122

While summer is a great time to be more laid back, a parent writes in asking whether kids should really have less structure in the summer. Dr. Lisa and Reena talk through key questions parents face once the school year ends: What’s a reasonable bedtime – and how much sleep should kids be getting? What’s fair to expect in terms of chores? And how much time should kids spend with digital devices, especially in light of the new, worrisome report from the U.S. Surgeon General? Their conversation offers both detailed answers and a broad perspective on the value of linking privileges and responsibilities.

June 6, 2023 | 31 min

Transcript | How Much Structure Should Kids Have in the Summer?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 122: How Much Structure Should Kids Have in the Summer?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
All right, my brother’s kids in Texas are out of school. We’ve got a couple more weeks left. Oh my gosh, Lisa, Get me off this train.

Lisa Damour
No, I think I’ve said this before. But I spend all fall trying to get the routines in place for family life. And then as soon as I have them in place, I feel thoroughly oppressed by them, like routines are killing me. I want to I want to be done with it. I want to be off the clock.

Reena Ninan
You know, I just keep thinking about the summers the past few years and how unpredictable and I have no plans and this and that this year, everything is structured. I’m like, I need everybody to be in something doing something because it’s just it’s spinning. But I love that we can now talk about the summer we got this beautiful letter from a mom kind of asking about sleep and what to do and structure in the summer. I thought this was just beautiful. Let me read this to you. Hello, Lisa, I can’t thank you enough for covering such a wide range of topics on your podcast, I truly enjoy listening to all the episodes. And I’ve gained so much knowledge from you. I have two girls who are currently 14 and 16 years old. And I understand how valuable and important sleep is. During the school year the rule is electronics off after 930. And they head to their bedrooms to start getting ready for bed. And bedtime is at 10 because they spend a lot of time on their homework during the week. It always ends up being later, usually closer to 1030 1045. But during the summer, how involved should I be with requiring them to go to bed at a certain time? And what expectations should I have for when they get up in the morning. Lastly, once my kids are out of school, any specific recommendations on how to give kids structure within their days, so they don’t end up sitting around on their electronics all day. Also wondering what you found works best for chores around the house for this age group during the summer. Thanks again. Oh my gosh, could this not be a better letter to kind of move us into the summer?

Lisa Damour
Our listeners are amazing.

Reena Ninan
Lisa, I want to I know she talks about teens. But I’d like to go through sort of the different age groups if that’s okay with you. When you’re talking about bedtime in the summer, what do we need to know?

Lisa Damour
Well, it’s a tricky one, Reena, this is actually not very easy. One of the problems and we have this is actually it’s light, it’s light late into the evening, you know, and so I think one of the battles, especially with younger kids is that, you know, eight o’clock, nine o’clock, it can still be daylight outside and having them on board with the idea that they need to be getting into bed can be challenging. So to be a realistic person in this bed times will be later in the summer. And that’s okay. That’s okay, we can let our hair down a little bit, we can let our kids let our their hair down a little bit in the summer, I don’t want people to feel like they need to be, you know, keeping things rigid and tight all through the summer. The big issue is, what do they need to be doing in the morning, where you know, the other end of the sleep cycle like does your kid need to be getting up for camp does your kid needs to be getting up for a job. So let that be a driver. What they are doing during the day should help make decisions about when kids need to go to bed, kind of regardless of age. So presumably with younger kids, hopefully they’re able to do something in the summer, whether it’s day camp or their way to camp where then that you don’t even have to think about it at all. Or whether your community has camps and make or become available. What you want is for a kid who is ready to get up when it’s time to get up. And that can be a really good index. If your kid if you are dragging your kid out of bed, no matter how old they are, to go to their camp or go to their job, they need to go to bed earlier. But the fact that you already have that tension in the morning, the fact that you’re getting into it when they’re supposed to be getting up. That becomes the lever that you have. You can say clearly you are not going to bed early enough because we are having these ugly mornings every time. You need to start going to bed earlier. Let’s see if that fixes it. So I think that’s a way to negotiate it kid by kid family by family.

Reena Ninan
I want to step back for a second. Just in general during the school year in general. What’s your rule of thumb for kind of toddlers elementary, middle and high school for this is when you should go to bed and the sleep issue.

Lisa Damour
So when they go to bed, to me is less important than how many hours they need. And so usually you can just walk backwards from when they have to get going in the morning to how many hours they need. And what we know is that preschoolers, you know, kids before HL elementary school route usually need somewhere between 11 and 12 hours of sleep. You know, babies obviously need more than that. elementary school kids need 11 hours of sleep a night. Middle schoolers need 10 hours of sleep a night. And high schoolers should be getting nine hours of sleep a night. Now their summer is the big chance for the high schoolers, that is the closing time most likely when they’re going to be approximating how much sleep they biologically need and deserve.

Reena Ninan
It’s so interesting. You say 10 hours like I don’t think my kids who are one in middle school and almost entering Middle School. I don’t know that they get 10 hours of sleep at night.

Lisa Damour
What gets in the way?

Reena Ninan
I think for us, we end up by the time they go to bed in fifth and sixth grade. It’s like like a little past nine o’clock, which it wasn’t before. Isn’t that pretty late?

Lisa Damour
Well, what time do they get up? I mean, this is let’s just do the math. You just always have to do the math.

Reena Ninan
I would say they’re up by about 7am.

Lisa Damour
That’s not too bad, Reena. I mean, if they’re, if they’re asleep by nine 930 They’re approximating 10 hours.

Reena Ninan
Because I’ve been wanting to get them to bed at like, 730. Because I’m tired.

Lisa Damour
And also we want to watch Formula One. And you know, you gotta look out to get the kids in bed. If you want to watch your shows, you know.

Reena Ninan
I still can’t sleep you love Formula One. That’s right. It’s a Lisa Damour secret very few people know of.

Lisa Damour
I love Formula One. I love it.

Reena Ninan
So how do we approach that? Right? If we’re going back into the summer, you’ve walked us through the number of hours of sleep they need. Is the summer any different? Should that number change?

Lisa Damour
No, that’s those are the target times I think what is likely to change is the window in which those are occurring? You know, which gets to something else in this letter, which is like, what are kids supposed to be doing all day? And, you know, ideally, it’s actually two things. One is, kids should be able to relax in the summer.

Reena Ninan
And what do we mean by relax? Because my idea of relax is like, go on the hammock and read a good book. That is not their idea of relaxing.

Lisa Damour
You are so right. Okay. So here’s what we have to tease apart, Reena. And this is tricky. Electronics Technology, from how much structure right like these are, they’re closely related, but we want to deal with them separately. So here’s what I want to propose as a way to try to meet kids in the middle a little bit. And I would say, especially for older kids, but this could apply for younger kids as well. They may be coming off of the school year, like, Oh, don’t ask anything of me. Don’t give me any structure. Don’t tell me when I have to go to bed. Don’t tell me when I got to get up like let me just trip. Right. And I certainly in my own home, and feeling pretty comfortable saying, Sure. Why don’t you take a week and just do whatever, do whatever watch TV show? And we’ll come back to the technology question in a minute. But I want parents to know, like, the nice thing about summer is like we got some time here. And so you can have the rules that apply for the first week or two weeks. And then the rules that take over after that. And so I think that one way that we can be good partners in the at the negotiation table, which often with teenagers, you got to negotiate sometimes, is to say, sure, take a couple of weeks, just cool your heels, and then you know, we’ll come up with a plan after that. All right, so that the plan after that kids should not trip around all summer, right. And again, day by day, by day, age, by age, it’s going to look different.

Reena Ninan
But I find if you let them kind of go off road for a week, it’s hard to get them back on road because they liked the terrain of no structure and for wheeling it in wild territory.

Lisa Damour
It is true, it is true that I think you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this arena. It’s like it’s all in how you set it up. Right? When we’ve been talking about technology with younger kids and younger kids asking for a phone. You know, I think so often our advices like, it’s how you set it up, you know, what’s allowed, what the expectations are, what they understand what the rules are. And so I think, if you set it up to say, All right, you can have how much time do you need to trip around to feel like you can, you know, return to a somewhat structured schedule. You know, hopefully you can negotiate a week, maybe two, and then say, Okay, let’s get on a calendar. Okay, your summer schedule was start on this date, but in between now and then go have fun. I think you can do it.

Reena Ninan
That’s great. And so when you’re talking about so give them that structured, unstructured period, a little bit that but no, we’re going to come back on. You always say tell kids where you’re going, you know, in the sense of this is our roadmap. But then what about the unstructured days, right? I mean, Some some family when I was growing up, I don’t know about you. There was no summer camp. My mom worked nights as a nurse, she would come home and sleep in the mornings we had to be quiet. So we watched lots of episodes of Little House on the Prairie. And then the price is right. We were on TV the whole entire time. She got to sleep. And then she took us out somewhere we do something that was summer.

Lisa Damour
Yep, no, I same thing. I didn’t go to camp. I didn’t do day camps. I actually worked for my grandmother. My grandmother was a caterer. I worked in her kitchen. That’s what I did. As a kid. I can cut a carrot stick like you’ve had ever seen, Rena, that’s a good skill. Yeah, no, I got carrot stick skills. And I watched a huge amount of television, huge tons. So in terms of the unstructured time now, it’s going to be kids wanting to be on their phones, if they have phones are going to want to be on their phones. And so let’s get into that. The Surgeon General just put out a really useful report advisory about digital technology, social media, its impact the way it gets characterized in the headlines of scary, right that there it does address that there can be real harms that come with social media. And that is true. The report itself is incredibly practical and useful. And I love it. And one thing I’ve been thinking about since the report came out, is that it actually it might be worth it for families to print it out and sit down with their kids and walk through it.

Reena Ninan
You know what we’ll put the Surgeon General’s report his new report in our show notes. Tell me a little bit about what stood out to you in this report.

Lisa Damour
So he and his team go over what we do know what we don’t know, the positives of social media, what we’re observing as the negatives. And I would have a parent read the report first before sitting down with their child because it does address some really scary content such as suicide and things like that. So no surprises for anybody. In terms of I don’t want any parent sitting down with a kid and finding that and not expecting that. So look at it on your own in advance. But what I found so helpful about the report is that it really hones in on the two things parents need to be paying attention to. One is, and this is stuff we’ve talked about. So often on this podcast, what are kids looking at, right, the harmful content. And then the other is problematic use. So even if they’re not looking at harmful content, if they’re looking at puppy dog videos for 10 hours a day, that is a problem. And so what I want parents to be thinking about just in general, is exactly what this report outlines, keeping kids away from toxic digital media environments, being aware of the norms and the environments where kids are hanging out. And avoiding problematic use, which means not letting any digital technology get in the way of what we know is essential for healthy development sleep between one there one physical activity in person interactions, and helping around the house or the community. Okay, so then Rena, this gets to the question of what should be kids, what should kids be doing also.

Reena Ninan
Because these are all the things the Surgeon General’s highlighting that my children do not do in the summer.

Lisa Damour
So in terms of what should be made of their days, you see you get past that week or two week window where they drip around and just let the school year wash out of them. And then you’re into the reality that is summer. All right. The more structure kid’s going to have, the better bluntly, that might be jobs that might be volunteer work that might be camps that might be working at a camp. And of course, a lot of this is going to come down to the parents resources, the parents ability to support getting kids to and from things. So not every family is going to have equal access to the same kinds of structure. But as much structure as kids can have, I will tell you, it’s good for kids to be busy. We don’t want them over scheduled. But on balance, it’s good for kids to have things to do during the day.

Reena Ninan
I love that. So, have structure, but have a couple of weeks here or there where it’s like, okay, you can let your hair down. There’s there’s no parameters or very limited parameters. And you say That’s important. But when it comes to technology, Lisa, it’s so hard like you and I grew up and like the television babysat us, right? It is so hard realistically as a parent, not to let them kind of hang out on their screens for endless amounts of time.

Lisa Damour
I know it, I know it. And I think that it’s so hard as a parent to get more and more information about what we should be worrying about with social media, and then to try to figure out what does that look like in your house? Or if your kid is already deeply into a digital world? How do you walk that back? Right? How do you get that, you know, kind of back to a place that feels good. So thinking again, developmentally with little kids, we’ve talked a lot on this podcast, set it up carefully, they do not need digital technology for a long time when they do need it. Often, all they need is texting to stay in touch with their friends go very, very slowly. By introducing apps, there’s a world of difference between 1011 1213 year olds on social media versus older kids on social media. So go slow, go slow. Okay, let’s say you’ve got an older kid who’s like, no, I’ll be hanging out me and tic tac, that is my summer like that is my plan. For those older kids, I would get the Surgeon General’s report, I would sit down with it and say, Listen, this isn’t just me talking. This is about your health. This is about your mental health. We need to put some parameters around this. What do you propose? So work with your teenager, around how this is not going to turn into problematic use getting in the way of things that really matter for development, and also, where they are spending their time and the influence of that on their mood and their mental health? So have that conversation. But I feel like this report does parents such a big favor, in terms of turning into the neutral third party, like you know how I’m totally we talk about, you can say to teenagers, if they go to parties, like blame your good behavior on me, right? Like, the Surgeon General has just done that for people like blame. You’re basically saying like, look, here’s the Surgeon General saying this, I can’t ignore the fact that the person is in charge of American health is telling us this is a problem. We have to deal with what this report recommends, and how are we going to do that as a family. But it just makes it it’s not that the parents being the bad guy that said, the Surgeon General’s laying out the research and giving parents a neutral third party to say, look, we gotta we gotta take seriously how digital technology can be bad for you.

Reena Ninan
And having that conversation, I think that you’re right, you know, having a report like this to be able to explain to them, you know, this is what at one point, a previous US Surgeon General said, cigarettes can be harmful. We learned that and we have a warning now on the packet of cigarettes. But here’s something the Surgeon General said, and here’s why it’s important. I love that list. I want to pivot a little bit to chores, because let me tell you, I had such big plans for chores, and they have fallen off the radar. And I don’t blame them. I don’t want to I don’t even want to cook dinner or do the dishes anymore. I’m done. I don’t want to do anybody’s laundry.

Lisa Damour
I know. Right? And yet, kids have time. And especially kids who have unstraight a lot of unstructured time, they should be helping. And this you know, that’s the fourth thing I always list under like, what should kids be doing instead of social media, digital technology, helping around the house helping around the community. So what I would say is come up with a list of what you want your kids to do. Make it clear, it’s not negotiable, but point out what is negotiable. And I think what’s often can be negotiable is when in the week, or when in the day the chores get done. Because there’s some chores like walking the dog, obviously, that are tied to somebody else’s schedule, like the dogs. But I think that with especially teenagers, but even tweens and kids, I think if you say here are the things that need to be done every day, or here are the things I need you to accomplish over the week. When you get them done is up to you.

Reena Ninan
So giving them that ability. It’s not like sweep the floor or after dinner. You decide when you do it,

Lisa Damour
Yeah. Say this needs to happen before by and you can say by this time, you know, and it may doesn’t mean that it’ll be like yes, got it and then magically by 8pm They’ll have done everything they’re supposed to do. But start with that idea. You know, you’re gonna figure out your day. But these are the things that need to happen before your day closes out. And then if your kids not on it not doing it, then you can revisit, come back to the table and say, Look, this is what we agreed. What’s getting in the way?

Reena Ninan
What do you do if you don’t pay your kids? You know, you don’t give them an allowance for the chores? Or how do you get them to stick to the chores?

Lisa Damour
You know, there’s controversy about whether or not kids should be paid for chores. And a lot of people say no, like, it’s just part of being a member of the family. Yeah. And I think that that’s a really reasonable place to start, right? If the kid says like, is this how I get my allowance? He said, No, no, this is you are a member of an organization, that organization is our family, we are relying on you to help us make this organization work well. If parents run into friction on that, which they might, I think it’s really fair to that to tie together my favorite two things, privilege and responsibility. That, especially in the summer, kids are going to want more freedom, more autonomy, more room to do as they please. And it is always the case, right in life, that following through on our responsibilities tends to give us more privileges, right? When you and I pay our taxes, we are allowed to stay out of jail. When we, you know, when we show up at work, we get our paychecks, right, like the doing the thing you’re supposed to do allows you freedoms in the world. And so parents can even though they may not seem connected, parents can link up if you want the privilege of going over to so and so’s house and playing you know, outdoor baseball all day, which is great, that comes with unit intermediate responsibilities at home. And if you are at home, not meeting your responsibilities, and showing me that you’ve got good judgment, and you can stay on top of things, you actually don’t get to enjoy privileges, because those privileges hinge on my confidence that you can handle that freedom well. So link them together. And what I would say is, especially with younger kids, or especially with kids with difficulties with executive functioning, keep the choice and the consequences are very close together. And what I mean by that is, let them have a restart every day. So say that you were like, okay, here are the chores for the day that need to be done by eight o’clock, and then it’s 830. And the kid did not do them. Then you can say, All right, today did not go well, tomorrow, you are staying close to home until you get these done and tomorrow’s chores, you are not going to go run around in the way that you were hoping to or you’re not going to get to do that fun thing you in the way you were hoping to because he didn’t meet your responsibility. And then we’ll try again the next day. But I think sometimes when we get frustrated as parents, we’re like, that’s it. You don’t get to do anything for a week. Yes, very much so. And then the kids like, frustrated and the parents frustrated and actually usually can rarely enforce that because it does they usually walk it back and then we regret it. So keep it small, keep it day by day, if you know that your kid may need that.

Reena Ninan
That’s so good. Now, can you just give us a sense, because I think some parents we don’t know what is acceptable chores for age appropriate, I guess chores? What should we think of for elementary, middle and high school?

Lisa Damour
Let’s start with high school. Because they can do everything. They can do everything. So high schoolers can babysit a lot. Right? Which you might need your high schooler to be keeping an eye on your younger kid and doing it in a friendly and hopefully productive way. High schoolers, I think you could ask a high schooler one or two nights a week to make dinner for the family.

Reena Ninan
Really?

Lisa Damour
Absolutely, absolutely.

Reena Ninan
I wouldn’t even know when my kids get into high school what they would do. I mean, my daughter is good in the kitchen, my son, I don’t know.

Lisa Damour
Well, you know, if you can read you can cook. And so one thing that parents can do is they can say to their high schooler, come up with a grocery list. Give it to me before I’m headed to the store, I’ll get your stuff. And let’s figure out the nights next week where you’re making dinner for the family. This is a great thing. And you know, they’re gonna go find recipes and instructions in places you and I would never go. I think it’s important. If you ask this of your kid, let them do it their way. Let them figure it out. So you can certainly do that. Then there’s obviously yard work. There’s always yard work. And I would say late middle school, and certainly high school kids can be making dinner for the family. Keeping an eye on younger siblings. And then certainly working in the yard, whatever you’ve got that it gets into questions of like younger middle school and elementary school kids like what they can reasonably be asked to do. Some kids may be ready to do laundry. Almost all kids can fold laundry. Right, your first second third graders they can easily fold the laundry.

Reena Ninan
Great point. Great point.

Lisa Damour
I think parents may have very strong preferences. And by that I mean I probably have very strong preferences about how much they would like be asked to clean bathrooms things like that. And it’s because I’m so picky about how that gets done. And also, I think obviously with younger kids, I’m question of like, do you want them around the, you know, the cleaning supplies that are necessary. So we need to be old enough to do that well. But laundry is a constant in family life. Vacuuming. Sweeping is a constant and family life. Certainly, kids who are late elementary, middle school can vacuum and clean no problem, you know, vacuum sweep, no problem. I think the issue really been, and this is my issue is the parent letting go of how the job gets done, and letting the kid learn. And asking them to do it again, if they’ve done a sloppy job. My mom has always worked. And one thing that I value so much is that she taught me how to work like really how to work. And she would give me a job and I do it part way. And she’d be like, No, you got to do the 100% job. And she was great, and really taught me how to do 100% job. I think I’ve used that all my life. I think in the calm of summer, as parents, we have more time to do that kind of teaching.

Reena Ninan
That’s such a great point. I never thought about these moments where you’re just too busy during the school year. And you have a beat an extra moment the summer, what can you impart that could maybe become better behavior for the school year? That’s so great. What else are we missing? Lee? So what else do you think parents don’t think about as they enter the summer, that could be helpful to keep in mind?

Lisa Damour
Well, I do wonder, Reena, if we sort of treated as a moment of time a reboot a shift in schedules or shift in routines. If there are rules that you wish you’d made about technology, such as it doesn’t go in bedrooms, or it doesn’t go on the second floor of your house, if your house is constructed that way. Summer may be a time to try that again. And to say, you know, there’s all this information coming out. We’re going to make new rules as a family and, you know, do it when the school year ends, and we’ll start there, and we’ll see how it feels this summer. But I I think that you know how people make New Year’s resolutions. I think you can make some resolutions and see if that’s a time you could try something that you’ve been thinking about doing as a parent.

Reena Ninan
I never thought about a reboot and a reboot coming during the summer months. That’s such a great idea.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, it’s kind of artificial, but I would say go for it.

Reena Ninan
I love it. No, I think about my childhood, right. And you’re always thinking about how you grew up versus now. And it was television. And we ate a ton of sugary cereals. I mean, like Count Chocula tricks, Lucky Charms. So I don’t know how my children have them. But when they get out of school, we often had to mean in the following weeks, and they get to eat pick out one box of like Uber sugary cereals that they eat before.

Lisa Damour
I love it. That’s such a great idea. And that’s such a beautiful example of like, it’s summer, we let our hair down, we do different things. But it’s also not like unlimited one box each. Choose carefully. And when the box is gone, the box is gone. And I think that that’s such a great threading of the needle of both reducing the demands and structures of the school year but not taking all parameters away.

Reena Ninan
And you give them an inch, they take much more because now they go for the family size boxes. So they insist we go to Walmart so they can get like the Lucky Charms that’s that’s supersized.

Lisa Damour
See this is the problem with kids are smart. Right? They’re gonna play the angles, they’re gonna figure it out.

Reena Ninan
You keep telling us this. So what do you have for us for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
Reena, you know, I’m tired and you’re tired. Right? We come to the end of the summer, or the end of the school year just cooked right. And of course, there’s a million things that go on at the end of the school year that just make the calendar that much busier. Apparently to go is I really want the adults, the parents and caregivers to take good care of themselves this summer. To really remember that a huge part of how we take care of our kids is that we take good care of ourselves, and to model for our kids. What healthy leisure looks like. So, parents, get your book, get your afternoon nap. If you have time. Get a show you love and watch it and enjoy it. Show your kids how it’s done while taking good care of yourself.

Reena Ninan
That could not be better advice to help kick off the summer months. Thank you, Lisa. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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