10 Tips to Stop Stressing Kids this Summer

Parenting expert Michele Borba says overscheduled, overwhelmed kids are missing out on the free play and downtime that develop their capacity to care about others. Here, she offers 10 tips to help us stop stressing the empathy out of our kids this summer.

Summer, of course, once revolved around free play: bikes, baseball, swimming, or just hanging out with friends. But for many reasons—parental emphasis on achievement, safety fears, the dependence on digital devices as entertainment—those carefree days are long gone. Like childhood itself, summer has become play-deprived and hypercompetitive. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can infuse more fun, free play, and empathy-building activities into our kids’ summer. Here are 10 suggestions:

  1. Cut one activity to make room for play with friends. Eighty percent of kids say they wish they had more free time; 41 percent admit feeling stressed most of the time because they have too much to do. So sit down with your child and his calendar and ask: Is there one extra activity that can be cut to free up time to connect with peers and practice social skills? Make sure “be with friends” is added to the agenda. And when your child is with a pal, make it an “unplugged play date.”
  2. Choose a summer camp that emphasizes fun. (A diverse mix of campers doesn’t hurt either!) Increasingly, parents view summer as a time to give kids an extra academic edge. That’s why so many opt to send kids to a serious math or computer camp instead of the kind where you swim in lakes, weave lanyards, and sing around campfires. This is often a mistake, says Borba. Kids need time to relax and be in situations that force them to interact with other kids—and if some of those other kids represent other races, cultures, genders, and belief systems, so much the better.
  3. Force kids to “unplug” as much as possible. Did you know that the average eight- to eighteen-year-old is plugged in to a digital media device about 7 hours and 38 minutes a day? And that doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones. Even preschoolers spend 4.6 hours per day using screen media, and almost 40 percent of two- to four-year-olds use a smartphone, MP3 player, or tablet. These numbers are shocking, and according to Borba, they’re a big part of the reason so many kids are lacking in empathy.
  4. Steer them toward cooperative (not competitive) games. Collaborating is about working for the team or family or group—and it means you can’t always be first, win, or have your way. This lesson is increasingly rare in a trophy-driven world that often pits one child against another. Cooperative Games and Sports: Joyful Activities for Everyone, by Terry Orlick, or Everyone Wins! Cooperative Games and Activities, by Josette and Sambhava Luvmour, are two books you might want to read and share with friends and summer camp or youth group leaders.
  5. Insist that kids read this summer. No matter how busy kids are playing, there will (and should) be some quiet time in the summer. Most parents would much rather their kids spend that time reading than playing video games. And the great news is that not only does reading boost kids’ academic performance, it also boosts empathy. In fact, science finds that people who read fiction are more capable of understanding others, empathizing, and seeing another person’s point of view than those who read nonfiction.
  6. Hold summer family movie nights. Films can be portals to help our children understand other worlds and other views, to be more open to differences, and to cultivate new perspectives. Why not initiate a regular family movie time? Just rent a stirring film—Charlotte’s Web, October Sky, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, or The Book Thief—pop the popcorn, and make memories while discussing compassionate characters. Or start neighborhood summer drive-in movies: Families take turns tacking a sheet outside, plugging in the DVD player, spreading blankets on the lawn, and showing a great empathy-building flick for the neighbor kids to watch.
  7. Focus on face-to-face family interaction. We tend to focus more on the idea that it’s interaction with peers that creates the foundation for caring and getting along, but don’t overlook the value of dinner table discussions to develop empathy. Family meals and even carpools are great settings to let children routinely practice empathy builders like communicating, collaborating, and respecting each others’ views—especially when they don’t agree with them.
  8. Find a place for kids to decompress. Even when kids feel empathy for others, stress, anger, and shame can thwart their ability to express their concerns. It’s yet another reason why our children need to learn to manage strong emotions and find a place to relax or decompress. Yes, it should be a literal place. Size doesn’t matter, but the spot should have a soothing feel. It might have a beanbag or rocking chair, soft pillows, stuffed animals, or a CD player, says Borba.
  9. Issue a “serving others” challenge. Encourage your kids to find ways to help others this summer. You can do community service as a family. Work at a shelter. Deliver gently used possessions to charity. Pitch in together to help the elderly neighbor rake her leaves. And don’t stop there: Urge them to make serving others a part of their normal, expected routine. The more they can make “caring about others” a part of their expected routine, the better.
  10. Issue each child a summer chore list. One of the best ways to help kids develop an “unselfie” attitude is by assigning chores. After all, to really be a team player in any group—be it family, sports, Scouting, church, club, play, or academic—you must set aside your individual concerns for the needs of the group, which are tough notions for kids who are too tightly wrapped up in themselves.

The best summers are those that allow plenty of time for play with a bit of old-fashioned work thrown in for good measure.

“The idea is to help kids find a good balance of free play and hard work that benefits other people,” says Borba. “Both build empathy. Both will make for a summer that’s fun, meaningful, and rewarding on a whole different level. And the benefits will extend to when school doors open again to give our kids an edge, in terms of academics and personal success.”

About the Author:
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned educational psychologist; a former classroom teacher; and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. She is an award-winning author of 22 books translated into 14 languages. One of the foremost authorities on childhood development in the country, she is a regular NBC contributor who has appeared over 130 times on the TODAY show and has been featured as an expert onDateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband, and she is the mother of three grown sons. See www.micheleborba.com.

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (Touchstone/A Simon & Schuster Imprint, June 2016, ISBN: 978-1-5011100-3-0, $25.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online retailers.