It’s the middle of July and it is time for your teenager to get off the couch. Never mind the many voices wistfully calling for a summer break, imagining high school kids filling their days with reading for pleasure, swimming and long walks in the woods. Or college students giving their brains a rest and taking “mindless” summer jobs—mowing lawns, babysitting or scooping ice cream.
These critics scoff at “resume-building” summer internships and work designed “to impress a college admission dean.” They poke fun at teenagers who “spend the hot months building latrines in distant corners of the developing world.” And they wag their finger at summer SAT tutoring or essay writing for the college bound.
Let kids be kids, they urge, nostalgically remembering their own carefree summers (or, more likely, an over-romanticized version of their youth).
But this backlash to over-the-top parenting and over-programmed teenagers deserves a backlash of its own. The argument that high school and college students should sit back and relax is pushing the pendulum too far.
“Isn’t this summer the perfect time for your teenager to kick around doing nothing?” asks author Julie Lythcott-Haims in a recent essay. “If not now, when?”
I understand the allure of such idleness. Like Lythcott-Haims, I believe that too many kids these days are being driven way too hard—often due to their parents’ misguided notions about what “success” is supposed to look like. (In fact, I’m quoted in Lythcott-Haims’s new book on the subject, How to Raise an Adult.)
Even though my husband and I try not to push our own children in this way, we just watched our son, Nathaniel, wrap up a stressful junior year of high school, where he was juggling a heavy course load, varsity basketball and prep for the SAT and AP tests. At this point, he’d love nothing more than to sleep in every day past noon, binge watch “Silicon Valley” and “Game of Thrones,” hang out with his friends, nap and stay up long into the night without worrying about having to get up the next morning.
But as parents, we’d never let that happen. Because, while we don’t want Nathaniel to pack his schedule this summer, we also think it’s a lousy idea for him to “kick around doing nothing.” We urged him to get a job.
For those teens lucky enough to find paid employment (a dwindling group, according to a new Pew Research study), summer is a chance to save money toward college or have a little extra cash during the school year. For a kids who land summer jobs—paid or unpaid—it’s a first taste of the responsibility and pride that comes with having employment.
I have nothing against the so-called “stupid jobs” described in an op-ed by Jennifer Finney Boylan—selling hot dogs, clearing brush, peddling T-shirts at rock concerts. I held plenty of such jobs in my youth. Nor do I entirely object to Dave Shifflett’s call for a return to the “grit and glory of traditional summer work.”
Yet it’s plainly foolish, while defending such relatively undemanding occupations, to condemn more serious pursuits that may help young people discover their passion or lead them toward a career. Indeed, summer can be a great time for teens to explore interests that they aren’t able to focus on during the school year.
During high school, my daughter, Emma, thought she might want to be a chef or baker some day. But after one summer working behind the counter at a local bakery and another working for a renowned pastry chef, she realized that restaurant work wasn’t for her. At the same time, she discovered that she did have a passion for food—which she then nurtured through internships at several food publications while she was in college. Now, at age 22, she is working full-time at Bon Appétit magazine.
Similarly, Nathaniel has parlayed his interest in biology into a part-time internship this summer at a neuroscience lab. For him (and for me and my husband), this isn’t about resume building; it’s about Nathaniel trying to figure out whether this is a field he wants to pursue, possibly for the rest of his life.
Another teenager I know was drawn to service learning in high school and spent a few weeks in the summer between her junior and senior years working in Chiapas, Mexico, on a project that supports a group of indigenous women. The experience solidified her commitment to social justice and ultimately directed her toward a college whose core values include social responsibility and intercultural understanding. This summer she has an internship with an organization fighting for economic equality, and she seems destined to work for a nonprofit or social enterprise once she graduates.
Meanwhile, for some high school kids, summer is the perfect time to study for the SAT or fill out the common application for college or write their college essay. This isn’t necessarily because they’re angling to get into a highly selective school or their parents are pushing them that way. Tackling these tasks in July or August can simply lessen an otherwise overwhelming and pressure-filled junior or senior year.
In the end, there’s no one answer to what teenagers should or shouldn’t do during these long hot months: go to camp, work at camp, get an internship, go abroad, vacation with their families, shore up their academics—or a mix of these things. Different kids have different needs. And not all of them are fortunate enough to have choices.
What’s needed is a dose of common sense—not the dizzying pendulum swing from helicopter parenting to hands-off parenting, from over-scheduling kids to scheduling nothing at all.
A blissful summer is a balanced summer, which reminds me: I’ve got to get Nathaniel up from his late afternoon nap. He’s supposed to go for a night swim at a friend’s house. But he can’t be out too late. He’s got to be at the lab in the morning.
Randye Hoder writes about the intersection of family, politics and culture. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, The Atlantic, Time and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @ranhoder