For many (most?) kids, the idea of summer is fantastic. Free time! Sleeping in! Seeing friends! Staying out late! Days with no schedule and nothing to do!
For Ella, the idea of summer is also fantastic. In practice, however, days with no schedule and nothing to do! quickly loses its exclamation point and becomes, DAYS WITH NO SCHEDULE AND NOTHING TO DO OMG OMG OMG.
It’s not so much that she’s bored (a word that, in our house, is regarded with even greater contempt than the curses they’ve learned recently) but rather that she has a very difficult time playing by herself/figuring out how to fill her time, and so unstructured hours make her want to tear her hair out and double-fist caramel macchiatos and fuzzy navels (or maybe that’s just me as I watch her flop around, groaning about not knowing what to do).
In an effort to help Ella feel like something is predictable, we’ve attempted to follow some sort of routine — wake up, put on clothing, consume something, maybe not just lounge around all day, consume something else, leave the house at some point, probably get wet, and be sure that everyone is still alive at bedtime. Very rigid, our days. For the past several summers, we’ve also created a Summer Fun List — a collection of things that we can do to A. have fun (hence, the name) and B. not kill one another.
Some days, we’ll check off more than one activity. Other times, an entire week will go by and we won’t do a single one, but it’s somehow comforting to have the list available – and I enjoy having everything spelled out for me so that when they beg for the 297th time to go to the amusement park, I can cheerfully point to the poster boards and reply, “Aww, bummer. No time today. But it’s on our list! Check back again later!”
For the most part, the SFL is effective in helping Ella stave off that OMG MY DAY IS A BLANK SLATE feeling, but there are still many times when we don’t have the ingredients to make root beer floats, the kite string is knotted, and I’d sooner gnaw off my arm than make a tinfoil river 30 minutes before dinner. It’s in these moments, the open spaces, when Ella really begins to struggle. She simply cannot entertain herself easily – whether that’s a product of her firstborn-ness (and us having “entertained” her as a baby) or simply an innate part of her personality (yes, I realize it’s both, just thinking out loud here), I’m not sure, but when she begins to pace the rooms, push every one of her sister’s buttons in the span of two minutes, and hover over my shoulder so closely I can feel her breathing in my ear, the emotional temperature of the room definitely takes a nosedive.
To be fair, it should probably be noted that I wasn’t, um, exactly the best self-entertainer as a child. It’s been rumored that I might have awakened on more than one occasion and approached my mother with the delightful phrase, “What fun thing do you have planned for me today?” Ah, youth. These days, my to-do list is not a piece of paper but rather an entire book (literally), so although I can’t entirely remember being unable to find something to do, I absolutely remember that feeling and how itchy and uncomfortable it is. (And, hey, I still don’t enjoy having stretches of time with “nothing to do.” See above: Summer Fun List.)
Seeking to stave off both Ella’s sense of helplessness and the terrible bad mood that accompanies it, I suggested that she make a list of things that she could do to entertain herself. (Coincidentally, I had this conversation with her only one day before Dooce posted about doing something similar with her daughter, Leta. If they ever got together, it could be the perfect partnership — Leta could do Ella’s reading and Ella could eat whatever Leta won’t touch. Symbiosis, bam.)
Upon hearing my suggestion, Ella immediately seemed game. As a big fan of making lists and writing notes, she already had paper and pens set to go, and so she brought her supplies to the living room and sat down, ready. I’m pumped! Let the brainstorming begin!*
But first, she wanted a clarification. “This is a list of things that I can do?” Yes. “All by myself?” Yep. “Like… when I don’t know what else to do, I can do these things?” Mmmm hmmm. “So… I’m thinking of things. Things I can do on my own.” That’s the idea.
And then she sat. And sat. And looked around the room. And sat some more.
Finally, several minutes later, she looked up and said, “Mom?” Yes? “Can you help me think of things that I can do?”
This is a marathon, people, not a sprint. And we haven’t even crossed the starting line yet. I really hope the oranges taste good at the water stations.
Eventually, Ella did come up with a list – a pretty good one at that. (I particularly like #16: Clean.) So far, summer has been a solid enough combination of busy and relaxing that she’s been able to keep her hand-wringing to a minimum and the list hasn’t really been necessary yet.
Which is a good thing, because the one time she did want to refer to it, she couldn’t find it. Because she’d lost it. She was quite distraught until I remembered that I’d taken a photo of it (again, see above), so I could just print it off for her. She waited patiently while I located the photo amongst my bazillions of other photos, opened it up, refilled the paper tray, and printed a copy… And then took one look at it and declared that she didn’t really want it – she just wanted to know where it was.
*totally adopted from one of my favorite lines in Good Will Hunting, “Let the healing begin!” I can’t find a good YouTube clip to it, but if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check it out. Such ballyhoo.