Summer and Siblings
Figuring out what to do with one child for the summer (sleepaway camp or day camp? Tutoring or no? How to afford extra childcare?) can increase a parent’s stress level. Multiply that times two (or three, or four) for some parents, and you’ve got a major crisis on your hands. For parents who are fortunate to have flexible employment or one parent who stays at home, there are other challenges—such as “what am I going to do with all of these kids all day?” Either way, once that final school bell rings, siblings who are normally in different classrooms or at different after-school activities suddenly come together, which can change the family dynamic, intensifying sibling relationships for better or for worse.
“Our family dynamic does seem to change in the summer,” says Claire, mom to Ben (8) and Jordan (5). “With the boys getting more time together, there is more laughter—and also more tears. [They] play pretty well together, and I'd say that their friendship and love/hate relationship definitely intensifies when they spend [more time together].”
“The children definitely play more together in the summer—but not exactly by choice,” says Jane, mom to five girls, ages 3 to 17. “The stress levels decrease for awhile in the beginning of the summer when all of the school craziness is over. They enjoy sleeping in for a while and going to the pool. Then the togetherness starts to get to them. I will say for sure that by the second week in August, they are all ready to go back to school.”
That’s not the case for all families, however. Hillary, a teacher in Ketchikan, Alaska, says she is more relaxed during the summer—and that transforms her family dynamic for the better, even while spending long hours in the car together on their annual car trip from Alaska to Oregon. “During the school year, I find that I don’t have a lot of patience with those who I love at home because that is the ONLY place I feel I am allowed to let my hair down without being judged as a teacher,” she says. On the trip, “we are all very happy, and excited as we discover new places and things…I have realized that the teasing incidents between my 3 and 5 year old are greatly decreased and meltdowns are at a minimum. It could be that I am more relaxed and they are adjusting themselves as well. I find that my husband and I are kinder and laugh more with each other. We all seem to work together more and are up for a new adventure everyday. Makes me wish we could always be on summer vacation.”
Heidi, who has three girls, ages 9, 7 and 5, agrees. “It’s the best time of year for our girls in terms of us getting along.”
To ensure that summer is memorable—for good reasons—there are certain things that parents should remember, says Heidi Peterson. Peterson, a childcare site director for the Eugene YMCA as well as an assistant camp director at Camp Arrowhead in Stevenson, Washington, acknowledges that, while the specific issues differ family-by-family, sibling dynamics can present a challenge during those lazy, hazy days. But it doesn’t have to be that way, she says.
Considering each child’s needs—as well as the parents’ needs—is key.
“One thing I’ve seen really successful parents do where camps or activities are concerned is to decide on a few options that work for them (the parents) and then give the kids the choice.” Summer camps that offer a variety of activities—from sports to art to horseback riding—are a good fit for many parents who have multiple children. “The kids have different choices – for the parents, it’s still one drop-off and one pickup.” With siblings who are close in age, “sometimes parents assume their children’s interests are the same—or different,” says Peterson. “Yes, of course you know your child, but nine times out of ten they’ll surprise you.”
Plan adventures that everyone will enjoy A day trip to OMSI, or even a trip to the local pool or the library, can be fun for everyone in the whole family. Ask your children what they would like to do. Keep a list. Brainstorm ways that the entire family can participate. This is true on vacations as well—rotate restaurant and pit-stop choices so that everyone feels they’ve had a say in the planning.
Call in reinforcements. Family friends can work together to coordinate age-appropriate activities (or even simply play dates), so that the kids are not “stuck together” all summer. This can also help solve the childcare question for working families, with working parents trading days. And, on family vacations, when possible, Peterson suggests having each child bring a friend close in age along for the ride—“so that the kids have someone their own age to bounce off of and not get on each other’s nerves.”
Not all families can afford several weeks of camp for multiple children, plus a family vacation—in fact, some budgets are so limited that sibling tension just increases already existing stress. Calling on friends to brainstorm solutions (e.g., a stay at home parent can provide childcare, while a working parent can, in exchange, kick in the funds for a pizza or a day out) can help.
Mix it up: Although she mostly stays home with her boys, Claire says she tries to schedule a couple weeks of camp part-way through the summer to give her sons a chance to have more structured time with kids their own age. “They don't do camps together, largely because of the age difference, but also because of separate interests. This summer, Ben will do a two-week performing arts camp and Jordan will do a couple weeks of Sports-O-Rama.”
Find ways to foster sibling relationships—and teachable moments. For a nine year old girl, for example, there’s a big difference between being told to entertain her five year-old brother and being given the grown-up responsibility of showing the younger one a skill she has mastered, such as tying shoes or riding a scooter. Challenge your children to choose one skill they’d like to pass on to a younger sibling this summer. Or brainstorm projects the whole family can do together while working at respective skill levels—e.g., painting a mural on one wall of the garage or learning to bake bread. Ask older siblings to take the younger ones on a field trip to a favorite park (but tread lightly here—see below). Finding new ways to interact that take advantage of summer’s slower pace might open doors to lifelong connections among siblings.
The Childcare Question
Most teens and tweens naturally expect the summer to be “their time.” And rightly so. “A lot of parents encourage—or even direct—older siblings to watch the younger ones,” Peterson says. “I have seen a lot of disastrous choices where a parent looks to an older sibling for childcare.”
It’s not a disaster until it becomes a habit or an unspoken expectation, Peterson says. If relying on older siblings for childcare, parents should be very clear about the parameters—including payment, if any—and be sure to provide time for them to do their own thing. Otherwise, resentment and additional conflict can grow. Hiring an outside sitter or even friends of older siblings frees the older ones to choose. An adult babysitter can watch everyone (without the older siblings realizing they are being watched).
When conflicts do arise (during summertime or anytime), it’s important to let everyone be heard, Peterson says. “Never decide anything until all sides of the story have been told,” she says. “This is always important, but especially in summertime, when everyone’s been on top of each other and tensions are high.”
And remember that summer (like childhood), is all too brief. Says Claire: “Though I usually both look forward to and dread summer, I am always surprised by how quickly it goes by.”
Contributed by Zanne Miller