For 179 afternoons, from September to June, my son and I follow the same routine. I enter the cacophonous auditorium, searching for Felix’s hazel eyes in the chattering mass of first-graders, perched upon the hard wooden seats. When our gazes lock, I jauntily flick my index finger at him as if to say, “I see you!” Smiling, he returns the gesture as I make my way to him.
On the final day of the academic year, I spotted my curly-headed boy as always. But somewhere between our finger flicks and my reaching his chair, Felix burst into tears. Not small sniffles but full-fledged crying, replete with open-mouthed, staccato gasps for breath between wails. I asked what was wrong merely as a matter of procedure—I suspected the reason the moment he lost it. Sure enough, he sobbed, “I’m gonna miss my teachers!”
Transitions have always been a challenge for my sensitive, quiet child, but this year has been different. In the past, Felix expressed himself behaviorally, externalizing his emotions either in all-out tantrums or less extreme broadcasts like stomping and whining. This prevented relationship-building with his peers for a long time. He’s changed over the course of the past few months though, becoming more aware of his interior state and better able to communicate his feelings. School has been crucial in this development: it’s provided Felix with a constant group of peers with whom he has slowly developed relationships in a safe, monitored setting. Like many introverts, Felix doesn’t see friends everywhere; rather, he relies upon a small, consistent few for companionship. His growth, while wonderful, has presented a different set of challenges—especially as the end of the school year approached.
While his teachers cleaned their classrooms and held planning meetings, lessons were replaced by special assemblies and periods of playing on the playground or watching movies. Felix liked the fresh air but missed the old schedule. What’s more, these daily inconsistencies led him to anticipate the bigger ending to come. He became moody and quiet at home and struggled to fall asleep at night, telling me that his head was “too full of thoughts” to rest. He set out to write all of his teachers goodbye cards, then became distressed and anxious trying to articulate his gratitude to them. (Eventually, my wife and I had to sit with him and almost literally hold his hand as he wrote.)
This isn’t familiar territory for me. When I was a child, I went to an oppressive Catholic school and had no qualms about summer vacation. I remember July and August as a hot stretch of wonderfully boring days at home with my mom and little brother, punctuated by a staid week at the Jersey Shore with my dad in tow. I occupied myself with watching PBS shows such as Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers in the morning, drawing pictures and building blocks in the afternoon, and reading whenever I had the chance. Without anyone telling me what to do, I could do exactly the things I wanted to—retreat into my imagination, alone mostly.
Our culture paints summer as a time for relaxed fun and celebration in contrast to the monotonous “work” of school. But for some kids, the steady, regular beats of the classroom soothe easily-overwhelmed brains. While many kids may love jumping into camps with new kids, new adults, and new routines or enjoy hiding in their own secure interior world as I did, for a child like Felix, summer is a time of disruption and no small amount of anxiety.
Whether your child has a hard time with transitions, like Felix does, or loves the onset of summer like a sunflower does the sun, the end of school is always the beginning of a new routine. So, how does a parent ease their child into it?
I’m in the process of figuring it out, but here are some thoughts.
Our family, like many, is on a limited budget, so it’s better for us if I stay at home with Felix. (And I’m lucky enough to be able to swing this, which I realize is not an option for every working family.) However, both Felix and I need time away from one another to avoid going completely stir-crazy, so we splurged on a part-time garden camp that Felix has attended before and really enjoys. My wife works there, so he sees a much-loved, soothing face each day. He also knows many people on staff, and the patterns and activities of the camp are familiar to him. We considered signing him up for a different camp this year but held off because he doesn’t seem quite ready—he’s only mildly curious, not overly excited, about exploring elsewhere. So, we’ve followed his lead and stuck with what he knows.
Even still, there are bumps. Social anxiety looms when he interacts with an unfamiliar group of kids, leading to periods of withdrawal, punctuated by tears and outbursts that sometimes upset his camp-mates. So, even with his relative comfort, we still have to interface with the teachers and staff to help them understand our quiet child’s special needs. This means direct advocacy on our part. Also, the camp is only three days a week for the month of July, giving him two days to recover and rest from an experience that he looks forward to but that also leaves him mentally and emotionally exhausted.
On the days when Felix isn’t at the program—and for the entire month of August—he’s with me. Unstructured days with dad means there are only the two of us for 8 to 10 hours. That can get old very quickly, especially when I have my own introvert desires for quiet and solitude.
To solve this, I look for quiet activities we can do in parallel. For instance, he’s currently working on an art project at the dining room table, while I sit across from him, writing this piece. Often, we play games or plop ourselves in front of a fan and read silently together. He enjoys cleaning and helping around the house, so we do chores together too. Sometimes this adds time to the task, but that’s a fine trade-off, seeing how happy and engaged he becomes when lending a hand.
Having a to-do list helps curb his anxiety about what the day will bring, so each morning I post a list of activities we need to accomplish. Still, he’s told his mom that despite my efforts, he prefers the daily calendar at school because it tells him exactly what’s coming at what time and how long the activity will last.
Just because school is out doesn’t mean the learning stops! Young minds are hungry minds, and it’s important to keep feeding them. For Felix, that means accompanying me on field trips to museums to learn about American history. He’s a natural builder, so we’ll be making a catapult out of household materials later this summer and studying a bit about physics in the process. Also, his teacher has invited him to participate in a summer book club, and we’ve offered him a new book for every five hours he spends reading. I try to keep my curious little guy wide-eyed and open-minded by modeling a love of learning in my own life and creating opportunities for us to learn together.
Finally, summer often sees Felix engaged in calm activities—reading and drawing, yes, but also playing video games and watching television. I relax school-year limitations on screen time, in part because on days between camp, it helps Felix recharge. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I factor myself into this decision too. Sometimes, I need a break for work purposes or general sanity. So, when necessary, I flip on the TV or give him a video game and let him enjoy it while I go do what I need to do.
We adults must remember that it’s our summer too. The disruptions to Felix’s schedule are disruptions to my own. I can love my little guy and still know that I miss his presence in school just as much as he does. Helping him successfully navigate the hot, unfamiliar months takes patience and a good deal of empathy.
I need to do what I can to keep myself happy and even-keeled so that I can best help him. That means taking my own breathers and finding as many opportunities as possible for us to be quiet together.