The Pacific Northwest is home to many things: Orca whales, eight different species of salmon, and, of course, the original Starbucks.
You may not know this about us, but we Seattleites take the planning of our summer vacations very seriously. If you don’t have at least a rough draft of your summer agenda by October —look out—people around here may just call you a slacker.
As a divorced, self-employed parent with a summer custody schedule that reads like an NFL playbook mated with a set of IKEA bookshelf assembly instructions, even the idea of summer planning makes me cringe. This is likely because most of my stay-at-home contemporaries decorate their kids’ schedules with a patchwork of four-hour camps touting the thrill of trapeze artistry or the wonders of organic soap making.
Sidebar: Four hours gives me exactly enough time to drop the kids off, get to the office, turn on the lights, get back in the car, and pick the kids up from camp. Apparently circus camp coordinators are lousy time managers.
The cost for these temporary distractions is approximately one kidney.
At ages eleven and thirteen, my children are smack dab in the middle of “too old for camp” and “too young to backpack unaccompanied through Europe.” They are a tad shy of legal employment age, but plenty old enough to drive me insane when they have too much idle time.
If someone were to slice The Universe down to its gooey, molten core, I’m pretty sure he or she would not find my children at its center. Further, it is my belief that kids need unstructured, parent-free time to gain the life experience and maturity needed to avoid a future of daily parental reminders to put down the Xbox controller, get dressed, get a job, and move out. It is mostly for these reasons I decided to go rogue and do something previously unheard of around these parts: I made absolutely no plans for my children’s vacation.
The unplanned summer was christened “The Summer Of Real Life” or SORL. First, I wrote down various daily “missions” my children could carry out entirely on their own. The missions ranged from exploring a neighboring park, to visiting ten local businesses and introducing themselves to one employee from each business, to hopping a bus to the downtown library. Each mission required them to leave the house, explore the city, get some exercise, learn something, and talk to people they did not know. The kids liked the idea of unsupervised adventure time and I liked the idea of summer entertainment that would give them valuable life skills without costing an appendage.
Part of the fun was drawing each daily mission from the “Magical, Mysterious SORL Box” (a.k.a. the empty vessel that housed the pieces of paper upon which each task was written—everything is more exciting when you give it a fancy name). The kids were thrilled that their first draw was the downtown library, the farthest and most challenging adventure of them all.
Suddenly, like a storm in early spring, it hit me: I was sending my children into the city with nothing but a little spending money, a smartphone, and each other. If things got wonky or they got lost, I would not be there to guide or protect them. I’ll spare you the images that flashed through my mind, but suffice it to say I thought about seeing if there was still space available at the soap-making table. I pushed those thoughts aside and, instead, chose to focus on the following:
1. Though our media would have us believe otherwise, the world is generally a safe place and people are basically good.
2. Pioneer youth plowed the fields, milked the cows, and looked after sickly babies while their parents were otherwise occupied with the daily activities of perilous living. And they did it all without smartphones. If those children could handle all of that, surely mine could skirt a homeless drug addict. Or two.
3. I grew up alongside gaggles of children whose parents did not put one iota of effort into planning their kids’ summer vacations. Our fathers were hard at work and our mothers were just too interested in what was happening on “All My Children” to care about what their own were doing. We made up games, explored nearby neighborhoods, and went to community pools—all on our own. We had imaginations, we used them, and we turned out just fine.
Although my children do not have any organic, hand-made soap to show for their first weeks of summer vacation, what they do have is a firm grasp on how to use public transportation, books from their summer reading list, and an increasing awareness of the community around them. Best of all, they exude the pride and confidence that accompanies self-sufficiency—something I’m certain they would not have acquired at circus camp. It’s too soon to tell if SORL will be a complete success but, with both my sanity and two kidneys intact, I’d say things are off to a decent start.
About the author: Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, writer, and single mother of two reasonably well-mannered children. Her written work can be found on TinyBuddha.com, and BluntMoms.com. She lives in Seattle, WA. For more information, please visit her website DrJillGross.com or find her on Facebook.