You only get 18 summers with your kids -- and this one counts more than most
Since mid-March, very little has been normal.
For my family of four, "normal" ended the day we returned from an early March spring break trip to Mammoth Lakes, California. My kids left school early on Thursday, March 5 — and they never went back.
There's no more preschool for our youngest, and no more elementary school for our eldest. Both kids unceremoniously — and unknowingly — walked out of the schools that had been their second homes for four years for a final time in March, and entered a world of viruses, pandemics, quarantines, Zoom calls and makeshift home school.
Kids all over the country and beyond have similar stories.
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But now, what would have been the normal end of the school year is fast approaching. Summer is coming, even though it too won't look the way most of us had planned.
Normally, my family's summer vacation philosophy has been to start as soon as school ends, and don't stop with the traveling fun until we absolutely have to. That was the original plan this year, before all our planned trips became a very small part of the coronavirus history books.
Though our vacations and camps might be canceled, summer isn't. In fact, this summer may be the most important one for our kids yet.
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You only get 18 summers
Even in a normal year, simple math tells you that the number of summers spent with your kids is finite. You only get 18 summers with your kids while they're, well, kids, though it's really less than that since summer doesn't mean the same thing for those who aren't in school. Then, once your kids creep into the teenage years, their summers likely aren't totally free.
But summer is a magical time for parents and kids alike. TPG talked to Seth Meyers, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, television contributor and writer based in Los Angeles, who said, "The period of summer, and especially the gift of adventure and travel, mark one of the few periods in a child's year when they experience a true sense of freedom, adventure and fun."
It's an important opportunity, he said, to nurture a child's imagination and introduce them to new experiences, all of which helps their emotional development.
Our kids are getting older in the midst of all of this, probably faster than we would have liked. I know my 4-year-old had to grow up quickly. Almost overnight, she lost her daily music class, hugs with Grandma, play centers at school and best friends. Now, she has to entertain herself at home while I work, wear a face mask on the rare occasion we do leave home and only sees her teacher and classmates once or twice per week through a computer screen.
So, while this summer is unquestionably going to be different, it still counts as one of just 18 summers in that march toward adulthood. It needs to count, it needs to hold as much fun as it can and, as much as possible, it needs to help kids be kids for as long as we can muster.
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Back to basics
Normally, I'd strongly encourage travel with your kids during the summer.
Anthony Bourdain said, "If I'm an advocate for anything, it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can." And, like Bourdain, I urge people to show their kids the world — to open their eyes to new places, new people, new ideas. But this summer, that approach may need some serious tweaking. Who knows what will happen by July or August?
But that's OK. You don't need an exotic or far-away destination to make travel fun or worthwhile. Get your kids and a map (and a list of current travel bans and restrictions), sit down at the dinner table and be creative. Maybe your radius is a two- or three-hour drive, or somewhere in your state. Maybe it's limited to somewhere within your town. Your resources, advice from medical professionals and government officials, your tolerance for risk and local regulations will guide you where it's safe to go.
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But, try and explore somewhere — if you safely can — even if it's just a few miles away or your own backyard.
After scrubbing the slate clean, my family booked three all-new summer trips. They're all short road trips within my home state. The new plans include a rented beach house on the Gulf Coast; a rustic cabin on a Central Texas river; and this very strange tiny cabin on wheels in an East Texas forest. All these trips will focus on getting outside, jumping in the water, getting muddy, splashing in the waves, sitting around a campfire and tuning out the world for a few days at a time ... while maintaining our distance from crowds.
None of these trips will involve airplanes, resorts, lounges or theme parks.
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One-on-one time matters more than ever
This may sound strange, because unless you're an essential worker, you've probably been home with your kids all day, every day for two months. You may actually be ready for a little less time together, not more. But, if your days look anything like mine, the family time together hasn't exactly all been of the highest quality.
Working from home in a new, remote and challenging landscape, while simultaneously learning to home-school multiple kids, hasn't been the easiest assignment. I stopped counting screentime weeks ago. Some families have had a different experience, but if yours is anything like mine, your kids probably need one-on-one time with you — without homework, online classes and quiet time for business calls.
This summer, we badly need to take time "out of the home office" so our kids can readjust to the realm of childhood instead of playing the role of miniature adults who work online most of the day just like we do.
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Make time for family — maybe
Last summer, thanks to our miles, we had brunch with cousins who live in California, hiked a Hawaiian volcano with my parents, saw the Statue of Liberty with my aunt and her 11-year-old grandson, enjoyed a slumber party in a Times Square hotel with another set of grandparents and cousins and got to meet up with friends along the way.
We probably can't safely do all that this summer.
But, don't yet rule out family get-togethers just yet.
For some, family reunions will indeed have to wait. But there may be creative solutions to challenging times. Perhaps you can rent cabins next to each other and enjoy socially distanced evenings by the campfire. Perhaps you can all meet up at the beach. Maybe testing will improve, or the number of new cases will get to the point that there will be a way to safely visit with a small number of family members.
This part isn't yet clear, but we haven't given up hope of finding ways to see family members who live within driving distance. For now, we have nearby beach house rentals secured and we'll go from there when summer arrives.
It's not about the miles
From June 1 to Aug. 11, 2019, my girls flew about 14,000 miles (largely on miles) on 11 different flights across six different domestic airlines. This summer was set to be even bigger, with three or four countries on the agenda.
But for summer 2020, we may not even leave Texas. It's not about the miles right now, it's about appreciating the small, rich moments close to home -- which is probably a great reset anyway.
Assuming it's safe and permissible to do so in your area, start looking for this summer's adventures by researching rentals on VRBO, Airbnb or simply asking your Facebook friends for fun, local ideas. I found one of the rustic cabins we're renting this summer by seeing a friend post something similar on Facebook -- which inspired my search to a part of Texas I've yet to visit.
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National Parks are beginning to reopen, but I expect some of them will be quite busy this summer, potentially with limited services. If you want to do some old-fashioned camping somewhere like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, I'd start planning now, because that's likely a very popular idea this year.
It may help to consider less-visited state parks and even smaller, private reserves. The aforementioned cabin we booked on a river is located on 30 acres of privately owned land, so it is unlikely to be swamped with crowds, even if travel does pick up a few notches between now and then.
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If you want or need your home to be with you at all times, RV rentals are also likely to be en vogue this summer. There are even RV rentals available from $1 per day, if you're able to help companies get RVs where they need to go. Right now, there are lots of RVs in Florida at that price that need to get to the New York-area. There are also a number of rentals around California and Nevada that need to be driven elsewhere.
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It's fair to say we all want a vacation from quarantine life, but our kids may need it most of all. Of course, truly getting away won't be safe in all situations, but having a memorable family summer vacation isn't at all about how far you travel.
"Travel, or a summer adventure in your own backyard, encourages a sense of wonder and primes the child's imagination by exposing them to new things," Meyers told TPG. He knows that many summer vacations may not happen as planned, but even showing your kids how to adjust to new circumstances can be important. "Parents modeling adaptation and flexibility ... teaches kids an additional valuable lesson: that families have the creativity and power to make their own fun ... even if the adventure is as simple as pitching a tent in the backyard."
Hopefully, however, a change of scenery will doable for many of us this summer, even if it's only a brief escape from the laptop, the living room and the same few hundred square feet you've been occupying since March.
If you can, pack a sleeping bag and find a cabin, rent an RV or do a backyard campout; whatever it takes to stay safe while exploring. Just don't let what you can't do this summer stop you from doing what you can.
It will be different, sure, but don't let one of the 18 summers you get with your kids slip by without finding ways to make the days different, special and unforgettable in their own right. You don't need to make a pilgrimage to a theme park, or even hop on a plane, to find magic in the world.
Photos by author except as indicated.