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As summer plans cancel, parents panic about how to entertain kids

As COVID-19 puts the kibosh on everything from camps to vacations, will this be the 'worst summer ever'?
/ Source: TODAY

There's a popular TikTok song and hashtag that describes many families right now after more than seven weeks in self isolation: "Bored in the House."

Now, as summer camps and other plans cancel due to safety concerns and guidelines in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, parents are starting to realize that when the school year is over, they might have months to manage their kids' schedules. And that is without the help of daycamps, vacations, and activities they usually have during the summer.

Though many programs are offering online options, a lot of parents are hoping their kids can reduce some of their screen time once distance learning ends. It might seem like the perfect time to give our kids that idealized '70s or '80s-style free-range summer and a chance to be bored and get creative.

But especially for households with two working parents who might be continuing to work from home through the summer, a wide-open, blank slate summer is also a little... terrifying in reality.

"I am in a full panic," Wisconsin mom of two and college professor Sue Bales Ridgely told TODAY Parents. "I have no idea what to do about this summer. My kids think it's no fun to go outside without friends."

Though they have a few plans and activities they still think they will be able to do, said Ridgely, "Like everyone else, I've got work and so does my husband. I am trying to figure out how to keep this summer from being the worst summer in history."

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This feeling of dread and disappointment seems to be spreading from parents of toddlers all the way up to teenagers, as many high school students mourn camp counselor jobs and internships they were relying on for money or practical experience during their school breaks.

"Panic is setting in, as we just canceled three out of four camps and our vacation," said Charlottesville, Virginia, dad of two Tripp Stewart. "No answers here. Our house has every toy, piece of workout equipment, trampoline, animals, yard and we are all still bored now! I’m going to buy a 10,000,000,000-piece puzzle and pay them $500 to finish it."

"Trying to execute my 40-plus hours a week of remote working is what keeps me up at night. The juggling is exhausting, and, as summer camps continue to close, community pools' accessibility not looking good, playdates out the window, and work as busy as ever, momma’s pretty stressed," said Heather Bahrami of South Riding, Virginia, who has three adult children as well as a 6-year-old and 4-year-old at home.

So what can you do if you are worried your kids might actually meld with their devices this summer after so much time together?

Remember you're not the only one who is disappointed

Child development and parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents the first step is to tend to your children's sense of disappointment. "This will be real grief for our kids," she said. "We cannot rush through that or control it. We can and should put boundaries on our children's behavior, but not on their feelings."

"I have an only child. She just turned 13. I am working from home until August first," Amy Mayo told TODAY Parents. "We've been home together since March 12. I think she's just... So depressed. Her dance season is all but canceled, she misses her friends, and being here with just me — day in and day out — while my husband goes to work is really killing her."

Don't be so focused on solutions to your summer kid quandaries that you don't recognize your kids need to process the loss of their expectations or traditions for their summer, Gilboa said. "We need to sit with them, figuratively or literally, and ask them how we can help them. Do they need advice? Empathy?" Give them that first, she said.

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The things your kids love about camp don't actually require camp

When you ask children what they love about summer camp, it's not the horseback riding, the arts and crafts, or the archery, said Gilboa.

"There are four elements to a worthwhile, productive, and meaningful summer, and your kids can have them without the actual camp experience," said Gilboa: independence, connection, purpose, and fun.

The good news is, your kids can still get that this summer, even without camp — and not necessarily all from you. For instance, independence can come from learning how to do even one new chore to contribute to the household. Connection can come from virtual Zoom sleepovers with local or camp friends.

Purpose can include any kind of value or mission your child cares about in the form of a project at home, and fun can be as simple as taking the fun elements from camp — a cheer, a song, cabin decorations — and recreating them at home.

"It's your responsibility to start the conversation with your kids," said Gilboa. "Ask them, 'What do you want to get from your summer? How can I help you do that?'" Then, she said, it is up to them to set one or two goals and figure out how to accomplish them. Even that, she said, is enough to make the summer a great one.

Though her kids are "crushed" their summer camps are canceled, Pennsylvania mom of three Kristina Grum said she is hopeful that a group project will bring them a similar sense of accomplishment.

"My kids want to start a baking business," she said. I've been putting it off because I was busy, but I think they're going to go for it now. They love to bake and have staples they all make. Rebecca's already working on a menu and a pricing list."

Manage your own expectations

"Our day and overnight camps are all formally canceled here," said Indiana mother of six — including 6-year-old triplet girls — Sumer Ramsey.

"We have decided to spend money on making life at home enjoyable. I’m expecting to lock the doors and kick everyone outside. I’m stocking up on firewood and marshmallows, fishing poles and bait, sunscreen, popsicles, lots of bathing suits, and making sure the kids’ tent is in good shape so they can sleep in the back yard."

Gilboa said Ramsey has the right idea; we have to be flexible and clear about what success looks like for us this summer, then let go of our usual expectations or parenting standards a little bit. That might include a daily schedule that mirrors something like a summer camp schedule, or it might not, depending on the needs of your family.

"This is not the summer to be keeping a tally of how many minutes or hours a day our kids are online," Gilboa said. "You want some portion of this summer to be intentional, because the past three months were all by accident. But if you can say to your kids, 'You got better at this. You learned something. You finished something,' then you can ignore the 14 hours a day they might spend on screens."

And if all else fails, you can take Winter Park, Florida, mom Kim Carr's idea. "We’re dropping them at camp anyway," she asserted. "Leaving them at the gates with a sleeping bag."