The Best Family Summer Ever

Ideas to Help Families Connect Before Summer Slips Away

Rhett Smith

School’s out for summer!

Long gone are the enthusiastic days when I excitedly anticipated the end of school so I could “do nothing” for three months. 

Summer was a magical time of playing with friends, staying up late, sleeping in, and taking family vacations. I look back on those memories with great fondness, but now that I’m a parent I am beginning to realize that summer can be either a really great experience for the family, or a very frustrating and exhausting one. That has led my wife and me to begin plotting out the summer for our family with more intentionality. 

We know that if we don’t, summer will not only slip away very fast, but also could be full of conflict and power struggles with our kids. 

One of the things that I have noticed with increasing frequency is the number of parents who want me to help them explore in family therapy what the summer is “going to look like.” Just last week I spent several sessions with different families helping them communicate realistic expectations between parent and child. And a few weeks ago, upon finishing a church parenting class on anxiety in the family, several parents came up to me to thank me for how timely the topic of anxiety was for their family as they head into the long summer. 

Whether you are a parent or a ministry leader, and whether your summer is just beginning or already near its mid-point, our hope is that this summer will be one of the best summers that you have had with your family and with the families you minister to. But in order to make that dream become a reality, below are a few ingredients that can help you prepare. 

Communicate Expectations

One of the mistakes that many families make going into the summer is assuming that everyone in the family has the same idea about what summer is going to look like. If these expectations are not communicated clearly to one another, it can be hard to get on the same page. 

For example, a 5th-grade student may create an expectation that summer means playing video games all day with little to no responsibility. A 16 year-old may have the expectation of taking on a summer job, an extended curfew, and little family contact, hoping instead to hang out with friends all summer. Meanwhile, a parent may have developed expectations of summer camps, daily chores, summer reading material and a family vacation to the beach. In being more intentional with their summers, families can begin by clarifying everyone’s hopes. 

Here are a few helpful tips for communicating summer expectations: 

1.    Hold a Family Meeting – Schedule a family meeting for every member of the family to gather and share their expectations for summer. This is actually a very important and crucial step, because families often don’t get together to discuss their plans and hopes, instead finding out each other’s expectations as they unfold throughout the summer. (Hint: It’s never too late to have this meeting, even if you need to frame it as “expectations for the last few weeks of summer.”) 

2.    Empower Every Member to Have a Voice – When you hold that family meeting, make sure to give every member a voice. This is simply an opportunity for the entire family to brainstorm ideas for the summer. 

3.    Decide on Some Options as a Family – After you have listened to each family member’s desire for the summer, then begin the process of making decisions and prioritizing items. In doing so, make sure that each member has various wishes that are honored. This can be tricky, so I recommend a few resources that may be helpful in that process:

  • I have found Patrick Lencioni’s book The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family  1 to be a very useful tool in my personal life and the lives of families who I work with and minister to. I love the way Lencioni helps a family discover what makes them unique, therefore empowering everyone to rally around a goal for a period of time (e.g., a summer).
  • More recently, I was informed by a client of the “summer bucket list” she discovered. This idea helped her plan out the summer with her family in a way that was empowering for everyone, using an actual bucket they could see in their home. 

Create a Rhythm of Downtime and Activity

Striking a balance between being super busy and doing nothing over the summer can often be difficult for families. Hopefully in the process of communicating expectations for the family a good rhythm can unfold between busyness and rest.

Lots of kids, as well as parents, come to the end of the school year completely exhausted. Sometimes a period is needed for families to rest and rejuvenate before launching fully into busy summer mode. But the reality of family life today is often that both parents are working, and therefore kids need to move quickly from school into summer activities.

Depending on your family, you may have characteristics that help you go about finding the right rhythm. But here are a few suggestions that I have found to be helpful:

1.    Create “White Space” – As you look at your summer calendar, make sure there are days on the calendar where there is nothing planned. There should be “white space” on those days. In our busy world, it’s important to have days where kids and parents don’t have something to do.  These days allow families to be spontaneous and creative in the absence of planned activity.  I recommending purchasing a large white board calendar if you don’t have one, or drawing a calendar on a white board. Capture all the planned activities on the calendar, which will give you a visual picture of whether the “white space” is being honored. 

2.    Observe a Sabbath – Whether the day falls on Sunday or another day of the week, a family needs to have one day when nothing gets accomplished. Sabbath reminds us that our relationship with God is not about what we can do for God, but that we are God’s children and can rest in our relationship with him.

If you do something on your Sabbath, stick to activities that are life-giving and that remind or point family members towards their relationship with God. I like how Eugene Peterson talks about the Sabbath pattern he and his wife created for most of their life in pastoral ministry. Every Monday they would take off and hike for most of the entire morning in silence, then gather to eat lunch together and reflect upon what they had seen. Your family can create your own Sabbath rituals—including time to play and time to pray. 2

Connect by Disconnecting

The more we immerse ourselves in a technologically-driven world, the more we need to thoughtfully reflect on how we use technology and how it impacts our relationships with one another. 3   If summer is an important time for us to connect as family, then our use of technology is one of the things we need to be thinking about. I love the words of Ronald Rolheiser recalling a conversation with a nun. The nun tells him, “My vocation is, at each moment, to make the person in front of me the most important person in my life.” 4  

As a family this summer, how do you go about making each person in your family the most important person in your life?

1. Put Away the Cell Phone – The cell phone is often a constant reminder to our kids that someone or something else is more important than them. No matter how much I think I don’t let technology get in the way of my relationship with my kids, I usually underestimate. So I was convicted the other night when I read the article “How to Miss a Childhood” at the Hands Free Mama blog.  It’s a pretty sobering read, so I recommend you check it out. Here are some ideas for going cell-free:

  • Use a technology basket in your house. 5
  • Leave cell phones in cars or at home when you do activities.
  • Stay engaged by limiting the amount of photos you take. Check out the article by technologist John Dyer, “Parenting Tip: Three Photos and I’m Out.” 6  

How to Get Started:

  1. If you are married, I recommend first meeting with your spouse so that the two of you can get on the same page. If you are not married, I recommend discussing these ideas with the kids’ father/mother so that co-parenting may be approached together. Grandparents or other summer caregivers should be part of the conversation as well. I also recommend sharing ideas with a friend, especially if you are not able to discuss them with anyone else. It’s helpful to get feedback, as well as garnering support and encouragement so that teamwork may come more easily this summer.
  2. Once you have met and discussed these ideas with others who will surround your kids this summer, I recommend having a family meeting right away. Just get the ball rolling before the summer gets out of reach. Plan an initial family meeting where you have every member of the family give input to what they want to do this summer. Give them 2-3 days to brainstorm ideas, and then come back for another meeting where you begin to put the ideas into action.
  3. Schedule a time at the end of the summer (put it on the calendar now!) when you will come back together for a family meeting to reflect, celebrate, and share both wins and losses from your family summer experience. This can be a great time to think together about creating expectations, rhythms, and ways to stay connected during the school year.  Keep a record of your insights so you will have them handy for next summer as your family continues to learn and grow together. 

 

Photo credit: Happy BLUE Monday by turtlemom4bacon, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)http://www.flickr.com/photos/turtlemom_nancy/3147564792/


  1. Lencioni, P. The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable About Restoring Sanity To The Most Important Organization In Your Life, Jossey Bass. 2008.
  2. Peterson, E. The Pastor: A Memoir. Harper One. 2011.
  3. Smith, R. Maintaining Relational Presence in a Technological World. Fuller Youth Institute.
  4. Rolheiser, R. The Restless Heart: Finding Our Home in Times of Spiritual Loneliness.
  5. Pure Hope, Sixty Second Solutions: The Tech Basket. http://purehopeblog.net/tag/rhett-smith/
  6. Dyer, J. Parenting Tip: Three Photos and I’m Out. http://donteatthefruit.com/2012/04/parenting-tip-three-photos-and-im-out/
Published May 24, 2013
Rhett Smith

Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in private practice at Auxano Counseling in Plano, TX. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and his latest book, What it Means to be a Man: God's Design for Us in a World Full of Extremes. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (MDIV, MSMFT) and lives in McKinney, TX with his wife Heather and their two kids. You can read more about Rhett's work and connect with him at www.rhettsmith.com

article comments powered by Disqus