The Tyranny of Summer Expectations

If I haven’t color-coded a Google calendar, am I even alive?

For the first time in recent memory, my kids are at loose ends this summer. As a parent who works full-time, with children who aren’t ready to stay home all day by themselves, I’ve relied on a complex network of expensive day camps and summer activities to keep them supervised and occupied. My parents moved here recently, and we have hit the summer jackpot of having grandparents who are local, well enough to care for young, active children, and actually wanting to spend time with them. This means: no more color-coordinated camp t-shirts or field trip permission forms or sunscreen before 9 am. This means: swimming and laziness and popsicles. This means: my achievement-meter is feeling a bit wonky.

With day camps, my children received awards at the end of every week (every week!). The first week that my kids attended these camps, there was a “Tumbleweed Stampede” theme. (We live in Texas, in case that’s not obvious.) One child got the “obedient cowboy” award, and the other got the “cool, calm, collected cowboy” award. Let’s face it – those awards were more for the Parents Who Pay for Camp as for the campers themselves. These camps know where their bread is buttered.

And so, the lack of day camps and lack of schedules has me feeling a bit at loose ends, too. Grateful, but unmoored. If there’s nobody telling me that my kid is an obedient cowboy, am I even parenting him? If I haven’t color-coded a google calendar, am I even alive?

So, in this summer of no day camps, I searched up “age appropriate chores for kids.” This type of web content is generally sponsored by fundamentalist Christian groups, and reads like a prison matron from the 1930s wrote it. Did you know that two-year-olds can change the oil in your automobile and prepare a simple meal? (They can’t.) If your six-year-old isn’t shining his own shoes (??) and taking complete responsibility for a flock of farm animals, you’re falling behind. My eleven-year-old is finally physically large enough to put away clean dishes on our high shelves, but his brain is going through so much change right now that sometimes it appears that he’s forgotten how hands and feet work.

When did chores become part of the Responsible Christian Parenting Checklist? Is ironing somewhere in Proverbs? Washing the curtains in Numbers? How did Christianity get mixed in with housecleaning and chores?

I think back to my own childhood. There were long, summer days with NOTHING to do. Our only neighbors were Amish people. We had no cable or satellite, and the Internet was still just a figment of Al Gore’s imagination. There were swim lessons at 8 am in freezing cold Wisconsin water, and then long hours of nothingness. My brother and I made “potions” in buckets. We rode our bikes up and down the driveway. (If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you haven’t spent much time in the rural midwest.) I read every book that I could get my hands on. We spent more time underwater in the pool than out of the water. My brother remembers the summer he forgot his multiplication tables (oops). There were no “summer bridge” workbooks. There were no chore charts, because my mom intuited that any work she would assign us would end up being more work for her. I did learn how to do laundry one summer, and she paid me 10 cents per load of clean, dried, folded laundry. Even in the 1980s, that didn’t meet any minimum wage standards, but she did feed, house, and clothe me, so a dollar a week suited me just fine.

I realize that I grew up with privilege, and my children are growing up with the same privilege. There are certainly parts of the world where children earn their keep, and it’s not because their parents googled age-appropriate chore charts. In my city, there are children whose job it is to tend to their younger siblings, translate for their parents, and forage for food. We are very fortunate that our kids don’t have those kinds of responsibilities. And I think it’s this kind of privilege that leads to the hand-wringing of “meeting expectations” during downtimes. Should we pick up extra music lessons? Learn Russian? Practice mindfulness?

And so it was timely when I happened across The Atlantic’s review of David Epstein’s new book, Range. The book is reviewed as a counterpoint to the Tiger Mom and grit books about parenting that have been published in the last decade, and apparently gives parents permission — or even encouragement — to allow their children to quit something they’ve started. “Epstein points to research that has shown that quitting something that’s unrewarding or unfulfilling and moving on to something that’s a better fit makes people happier.” Now, I realize that that doesn’t mean that we can all quit folding laundry and going to work every day. And that doesn’t mean that my kids are going to get to play video games all summer without picking up a book. But it has affirmed my countercultural attitude of loosening my grip on the reins of summer. This is secular relief in the face of little-l laws that govern privileged parenting. This glimpse of grace is as much for me, the hand-wringing parent, as it is for the kid who just wants to stay in pajamas until noon. We get precious little time to spend with our kids when they’re not being observed, corrected, and grit-ed into submission.

Am I worried that I’m messing them up?


But, so far (I SAID “SO FAR,” DO YOU HEAR ME, JINXING SPIRITS?), I have kids who are respectful and helpful. They open doors for strangers. Teachers adore them. They are obedient little cowboys. They enjoy each other’s company, and they read a lot of books. They practice the piano without too much whining. They do not have military precision, but neither do I. If they gripe a little here and there, I tell myself that that’s a sign that they’re secure in their belovedness.

There is a lot of pressure for all families to get this “right,” and somehow the websites full of chore checklists seem to stamp “Christian” right on top of that pressure. “Good Christian children” must be obedient and useful and proficient at car maintenance and household duties, or so this line of thinking seems to say.

It’s not just chore charts online. One of my favorite Christmas hymns, “Once in Royal David’s City,” packs this whopper in the third verse:

Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

I remember hearing that about a month before our first baby was delivered of me (thanks, Royals, for that more elegant phrasing) and thinking, “No pressure, kid.”

Our family fails that measure of “good Christian family,” even with our obedient cowboys and honor rolls of good behavior. It’s not so much that I don’t care, but it’s that I believe firmly that God doesn’t need any of that from us, on summer break or any time of year.

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3 responses to “The Tyranny of Summer Expectations”

  1. DALE E KLITZKE says:

    Thanks! This takes a lot of pressure off the old folks involved. Very well writing—as usual. You are awesome!

  2. Susan C says:

    Thank you for taking me back. In suburbia in the 60s it was bike riding and baseball IN THE STREET. And not an adult to be seen until we were called in for supper. Chores and reading lists and piano practice all just continued as during the school year. I still love a little nothingness.

  3. CJ Green says:

    “Good Christian children must be obedient and useful and proficient at car maintenance.” Wow, Carrie – excellent work, and I doubt anyone needs to be a kid to relate to this pressure! Grateful for your words

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