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How Do I Manage Free Time?

After a rather difficult 5th grade year, we were ready for summer break. The academic year was very demanding and full of pre-teen drama and an increased ability to argue. I knew if I gave my son too much of a summer break, though, his executive functioning deficits would loom large and we would struggle as much as we did during the school year.

Summer camps and a solid routine at home can help children with EF deficits enjoy their summer (and not drive their family nuts). Kids also need chunks of unstructured time just to relax and learn how to entertain themselves. But Kai could easily take a dive into video games during his free time and never resurface.

Can you tell we've done battle with the personal screen and video games? I think every parent has been there.

I've learned the average video game requires no waiting, no putting off pleasure to accomplish a long-term goal, no need for patience, no need to call a friend and engage socially. OK, I'll cut Minecraft a little slack--but not much. Some kids can walk away from a screen; mine can't. The high stimulation of a video game trumps every other possible activity.

With all that in mind, my husband and I looked at priorities for the summer. Kai's working memory isn't so great, so he always needs to keep some daily academic practice going. Another big priority was to stick with our school-week screen time rules. Equally important was to keep him involved in sports, which he loves.  

The result: Some new sports camps sprinkled throughout the summer, with a week off here and there. We also chose to keep him enrolled in a tutoring center. And the media rules were simple but strict: 60 minutes a day of anything academic in return for an hour of gaming. If he complained too much, he lost his game time.

We reserved the right to offer him more game time on weekends, depending on our plans. If he has a friend over, they always want gobs of it. Three to four hours a day of any screen, including TV, is the limit on weekends at our house. Instead we went outside for walks and short hikes. With a friend to accompany him, walking the dog became a pleasure instead of a chore. We found many simple ways to keep him and his friends outdoors.

The hard part is dealing with the unstructured hours but I see improvement from last year. Kai's learned to accept our media rules. Our reluctant reader still sets his watch for the minimum of reading time, but he often turns it off and keeps reading. He's also working on construction kits that he wouldn't touch last summer because they came with written directions.

And check this out: Last night, my son and I read our own books, side by side, wrapped in our comfy blankets on the couch. Kai wasn't reading upside down or laying down or refusing to read at all. In fact, he started reading by himself, and I asked if I could join him. For us, that was just HUGE.

I think it's true that whatever is "boy" or "pre-teen" or "bothersome that day" is amplified by an ADHD brain. It's not Kai's fault. But if I don't instill good EF habits by sticking to our rules and boundaries, it's his life and his future at stake. He'd still be a 3rd grade reader if I hadn't stuck with it.

I want my child to leave home as a young adult--not when he's 30! I want him to explore the world with confidence. I also want him to take some risks and possibly fail--and know how to get up and dust himself off.

I once asked my son if he wanted the kind of mom who would let him do whatever he wanted, even though that meant he would probably flounder and struggle when he left home as a young adult. Or, "Do you want the stricter mom who sets rules and expectations so that you don't fall apart when you leave home?"

He picked the second one. They say kids want boundaries. It's true.

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