What’s your summer parenting style?

Should summer break be about R&R, hitting the books, or something in between? Identify your summer style – and how you can make it work to your kids’ advantage.

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

What’s your summer style?

School’s out! Go ahead, take a deep breath and bask in the glow of another school year completed. But then what? As summer kicks in — and you find yourself juggling childcare, financial, academic, and entertainment concerns — which of these four summer parenting styles will you follow in the weeks between now and the first day of school?

#1 Laid-back: My kids work harder during the school year than I do — they need R&R!
#2 Learning light: If my kids don’t read on their own, I’ll give ‘em a little nudge.
#3 Work hard, play hard: An equal balance between learning and lounging is the goal.
#4 Work, work, work: Summer is the best time to get ahead — period.

Summer style #1: Laid-back

“Summer should be a complete break. My kids have earned it.” This sounds like you? Then “Laid-back” is your summer style.

You and your kids are relishing the prospect of sleeping in and spending hours outdoors. You’re more likely to take your kids to the pool than the library, and you'll make every attempt to keep stress to a minimum. Indeed, there's merit in letting your kids unwind. In the current drill-and-kill academic atmosphere, school pressures can mount, piling stress on the shoulders of kids as young as kindergarten.

But before you drop the reigns entirely, consider these sobering summer stats: 60 percent of parents relax their TV rules during the summer, with kids dramatically upping their screen time; children's BMIs rise up to three times faster during the summer; and research by RAND (published in "Making Summer Count") found kids lose a month of learning, with math skills being the hardest hit. But don't put your kids on a strict gym-library rotation just yet. Kate Shatzkin, spokeswoman for the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), says “summer is a special time" to learn in a different way. Parents can take advantage of the "outdoor classroom" by bringing books beach- and pool-side, teaching plant and animal names, and helping spot numerical patterns in nature.

Bottom line: Excessive recreation and relaxation can lead to learning loss. Combat it with fun in the sun that involves learning, too.

Summer style #2: Learning light

You’ll make sure summer reading happens, but you won't crack the whip. Your style is “Learning light.”

While you won't stage an academic intervention during this well-deserved break, maybe you’ll enroll your child in a one-week science camp? If so, good! Any effort to expose your child to new learning experiences is better than none and might ward off the dreaded words, “I’m bored!” In a survey by Public Agenda, 58 percent of parents said long summer days are the hardest to fill. In that same survey, 89 percent of kids (even tweens and teens!) admitted that “even though I might complain about it, sometimes I need to be pushed by my parents to do things that are good for me.”

Hear that? Full steam ahead! Your library’s summer reading program is an excellent way to get your child reading beyond what’s required. Shatzkin takes a week off from work to play camp counselor, trying new learning activities with her kids each day. Later in the summer, her husband does the same. “Dad Camp” includes “Democracy Day,” which might be a field trip to the Supreme Court; “Commerce Day,” when they get behind-the-scenes looks at local businesses (An all-time favorite: seeing how potato chips are made!); and “Physical Activity Day” filled with fitness challenges at the local pool. Their kids earn “Dad Bucks” by writing reports or poems about what they learned (print your own parent bucks) that they can cash in for goodies, which gives them a little lesson in saving and investing.

Bottom line: Sidestep summer boredom (and brain drain) with entertaining learning programs. And if they can’t be found (or afforded) — create your own!

Summer style #3: Work hard, play hard

Do you encourage your child to study all morning and play all afternoon? “Work hard, play hard” is your style.

You feel a hardy dose of learning should be rewarded with an equally hardy dose of play. Nothing wrong with that! But remember: play can also be educational. Shatzkin says much outdoor fun, like scaling a playground’s climbing tower, can teach plenty. “How about having your child graph how high she climbed each day?” she suggests. Stuck inside? Board games pack a fun learning punch.

At home, Shatzkin's family practices “DEAR” (Drop Everything and Read). During daily DEAR time, parents and kids grab their books and read together. “Have the whole family pile onto the hammock with a pitcher of lemonade and their books,” she suggests. Another learning-made-fun activity? “Five-Minute Haiku,” an impromptu challenge Shatzkin and her husband invented. Each family member has five minutes to write a haiku on a given topic like nature. Kids too young for penning poetry? Have them write letters and numbers with sidewalk chalk.

Bottom line: Connect the fun and learning so the two are interchangeable.

Summer style #4: Work, work, work

You believe summer is all about getting ahead — or catching up. Yours is a “Work, work, work” summer style.

If all work and no play is your M.O., your kids will surely benefit academically, starting the new school year ahead — or at least on track. Maybe you're having them review the coming year's curriculum or you’ve created your own academic plan. If so, your child can use the summer to get familiar with new topics and even work with a tutor. According to Shatzkin, students enrolled in full-day summer programs lasting at least five weeks can gain the most. “It’s great if your kids can take part in the school district’s summer learning program,” Shatzkin notes. “This is especially important in transitional years like a child moving up to middle school or high school.”

As pro-summer learning as she is, Shatzkin acknowledges that kids' brains need a break and their bodies a boost. Research shows that kids gain weight more rapidly during the summer. Camps and other organized activities that get them moving can help. Even informal outings in nature — the local park or a hike — can do your child good (and minimize the impact of kids’ stress). Keep in mind, too, that kids learn through play and even roughhousing can help build kid brainpower. Learn these other ways to sneak learning into whatever your summer plans hold.

Bottom line: You’re helping your kids put their best foot forward, but give 'em the chance to recharge and feel refreshed come fall.

Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann is a freelance writer based in Detroit. She has written for  children's health and parenting magazines and blogs about both topics at Mom meets baby.