Summer offers a window for travel and time off, and parents often try to provide spectacular adventures for their kids during this open season. We plan trips, sign kids up for camps, and attempt to make sure they have every possible awesome experience we can think of.
While a parent’s motives may be on point, there’s no need to run ourselves or our kids crazy creating what we think will be perfect memories of summer. There’s also no need to spend money we don’t have taking vacations because we’re afraid our kids will feel cheated if we don’t.
The memories our kids will cherish aren’t particularly the ones we might expect. While it would be nice to take them backpacking across Europe, the hazy, lazy days of normal living are what summers (and life) are made up of for kids.
The problem with awesome
Writer Tsh Oxenreider traveled around the world with her children for months, and I was surprised to hear what she had to say on the Shauna Niequist Podcast when asked what she learned on the trip. It’s not the big events, and there were plenty, that her children talk about. Their favorite memories were the long stays in unremarkable houses, wandering through fields, or feeding chickens in the backyard.
Oxenreider’s book, “At Home in the World; Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe,” relates their journey, but what she learned was the times they stopped to catch up on work and school and just live were her kids’ favorite times.
She and her husband attribute this to the problem of awesomeness. Oxenreider says, “When everything is awesome, nothing is awesome,” explaining why too many over-the-top plans piled on top of each other fail to register awe from our kids. When we stack up event after event trying to make sure our kids have the best time 24 hours a day, everything starts to lose its luster.
Podcast host and writer Niequist recognizes this in her kids as well. When vacationing, playing with friends they’ve met is one of their favorite past-times, something they do at home regularly. I also realized that eating was the activity our kids had chosen as their favorite when we were on vacation. Granted, we have food allergies and visited a destination where more restaurants accommodated our needs, but we also visited the state capitol, watched bats fly from underneath a bridge, and swam in a spring at a beautiful park. My kids will name swimming in the hotel pool and eating as their favorite activities, which are not at all vacation-specific events.
It’s the everyday, not the extraordinary, that they fixated on.
Relationship building is what they remember
Krystine I. Batcho, Ph.D. and professor, wrote for Psychology Today about kids’ memories and what they say about the bond between a parent and a child. It’s known that quality time with children is one of the most important gifts we can give our kids, but what parents need to understand is that the regular rituals mean the most, much more than the extravagant trips.
Our presence is what communicates to our children that they are important to us, and Batcho says it doesn’t matter what event we take part in when we’re present in our children’s lives. It doesn’t have to be traveling around the world.
For adults asked about their most memorable childhood memories, they ranged from going to sports practices with their parents to being given special, non-flashy gifts that were traditions for birthdays. They remembered these events because they were about the relationships they had with their parents.
Vacations are still great, but they won’t matter if the everyday activities that maintain a life aren’t in place to develop the bond.
Another reason kids may choose the ordinary moments as favorites is because they have their parents’ attention. Researchers find that when we distance ourselves from an experience by using a camera (or in today’s world, a phone) to take pictures, we actually don’t remember as much about what we’ve seen. On a major vacation, we often take pictures of the extraordinary, which means we’ll have a picture later, but our actual memories of what we photographed will be fuzzier than if we hadn’t wielded the camera phone.
This implies that our attention is not focused once a camera is used, and phones with cameras add a whole different level to the meaning of distraction. Pictures are taken, loaded to many social media platforms, and then parents will often respond to the comments they receive. Parents are pulled from the moment as opposed to being present and building a relationship with their kids.
However, during the downtime moments when we are engaged in ordinary activities, we likely won’t take as many pictures and will be more in the moment with our kids.
Take time as summer ends to appreciate the normal, everyday activities and give kids undivided attention. It doesn’t require hotel reservations or airline miles, and it may be the key to offering lasting memories.