Structured Flexibility: Not an Oxymoron for Your Summer Schedule

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You have to understand, I grew up in Spain.  As I remember it (from the eyes of a child) the culture there is very laid back compared to the American rat-race, and the people are go-with-the-flow, enjoy life, sit at the table for 2 hours, kind of people. I loved it!  Then I married a man who for several years–before children and as we were starting our family–was a full-time youth pastor and a part-time athletic director, so we were out late at night several nights a week, but not necessarily the same nights every week.  On top of that I was a PRN nurse, which meant that my schedule was different every week.

All that adds up to not having a lot of structure in our schedule, which worked fine in those early years, but in my naiveté,  while pregnant with my 1st child, I remember thinking, “Well, this baby is just going to have to be FLEXIBLE.  I’m not going to be tied down to a schedule with him because if I allow that, I will never see my husband.”  And I continued on blithely ignorant that structure and flexibility are compatible, not opposed to each other.

Fortunately, during that same pregnancy, as I was reading up on being one of those perfect parents (yeah, right), one of the authors I was reading, explained that there is actually only true flexibility if there is an underlying structure.  Without the structure, it is not flexibility, but rather chaos.  Like a young tree, that has the ability to bend in the wind only because it has a structure that is rooted to the ground.

This basic principle has been invaluable to me over that years as I have set  (very) flexible structures in place for our family. These structures are ever-changing, extremely flexible,  and sometimes you might even call them “fluid.” Nevertheless when a child knows what to expect because there is structure in place, he will be happier and more secure, and your home will be more peaceful for it.  OK, at least less chaotic!

I have several different mini-structures in place such as chores, morning/nighttime routines and behavioral reward/penalty systems, but since summer is looming, that is where we are going to camp in this post.

How do you set up structure in the summer for your children?  Do you let them sleep in (I wish they would!), do you go, go, go all summer long, does all play-time have to be structured?  Is it possible to over-structure? It can be a little overwhelming to figure it out.

I have a personality that enjoys sitting down and organizing and figuring things out on paper.  As a result, my structures in the past have tended to be overly-complex with the result of not lasting very long because they are not sustainable. On the other hand, I have found that if I do a GENERAL structure and then plug-in specifics on a day-to-day basis, I am more likely to follow the schedule, and my boys are more able to understand it.  Simplifying also makes flexibility easier!

So how do you go about setting up a summer schedule?

1.Make a list of things you KNOW you want to include in your schedule:  chores, activities, routines, events, personal development.

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OK, I admit it, I’m a list person! But this will help guide you as you embark on getting that schedule written.

2. Choose your schedule style

  • Clock-ruled:  A few years ago, when all my boys were in the “young” stage of life, I had a general schedule that followed the clock.  For example 8-9 was breakfast, breakfast clean-up, morning grooming and bed-making.  9-10 was outside playtime, etc.  This style places the responsibility of keeping it squarely on your shoulders and is probably a great one to use with younger children.
  • Check-list: As my older boys moved on to a different life stage, I have moved to a check-list style schedule.  I don’t control whether my 11-year old eats breakfast as soon as he gets up or whether he waits 30 minutes, so trying to follow a clock would be frustrating.  Also, I don’t really care when he does his chores, as long as they get done.  The beauty of the check-list is that you are relinquishing the responsibility to your child.
  • Combination: This is where I settled last year.  I have a big general schedule for everyone, and then I have a specific check-list for my older boys.

3. Initially, make your schedule general enough to fit all your children, leaving the specifics for later.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 8.19.00 PMMake out a schedule that they ALL are going to share–breakfast, grooming, chores, activities, etc.  Start with a basic structure that you can then tailor to each child according to his age or capabilities.

Start with morning routine:  Do you have a time you want them to be up by?  Or a time they may not get up until?  Because some of my boys tend to get up at the crack of dawn, we have fairly strict rules about what they are allowed to do before 8am.  Last summer they had to stay in their rooms.  This summer, by their own choice, they have all moved into one room together, so I will be sending them into the playroom so the other boys can continue to sleep.  And if that gets too loud, I will assign them different rooms they can go to be alone until 8am.  Other morning routine stuff would include breakfast & clean-up, grooming, making beds, maybe morning chore time, outside playtime, etc.

Continue with the middle-of-the-day structure:  From mid-morning to late afternoon is usually the time in my schedule that has the most variety.  This is where I plug in the activities: Make something Mondays, Activity and Picnic on Tuesdays–usually a park or the pool, etc.  Again, I keep it general enough on the actual schedule so I can use that same schedule week after week throughout the summer, but then each week, I look at my initial planning list, and pick something from that list to do on each particular day.  I still have a child that needs a nap in the afternoons, so I plan quiet activities for my boys during that time.  That is when they do their reading, Rosetta Stone, writing, quiet toy-time, etc.  Usually I schedule more outside time during dinner-prep.

End with the evening routine:  Pre-dinner, Dinner and clean-up, family time, bedtime routines.

Somewhere in that structure, please be sure to structure in what we call “free play.” That is play time that is non-screen related and is not dependent on your planning or participation.  Being able to self-entertain and socialize with peers is crucial in the proper development of a child.

4. If your children are old enough, give them a tailored schedule.Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 8.30.07 PM

Last year, I had a binder for the boys.  At the front was the general schedule that had the times on it.  Then they each had their own tab with their personal check-list schedule that they were responsible to keep and check off.  This tailored one got printed out each week so they could continue to use it as a check-list.

I had one that was old enough to keep a schedule, but was having a little difficulty reading, so I made one up with pictures for him.  I’m happy to report that this summer we will be able to use words!

5. Sit down with your child and go through the schedule, laying out the expectations.

Believe it or not, most children will be EXCITED to have a schedule to follow.  The downside is that they can become the schedule police!  So in this initial conversation, be sure to include that this schedule is not set in stone, it is flexible, and that some things may change.

6. Offer them a reward for fulfilling responsibilities.

Last summer I did an all or nothing approach for each day–if they accomplished the ENTIRE days’ worth of check-list, they could get a quarter per day.  If they did it every day for the entire week, I threw in a bonus quarter to make it $2 for the week.  It’s the best money I spent all summer!  My house stayed fairly tidy, I got to sleep in a little, I didn’t have to hound my boys to read, or write or get their chores done, and they loved making money for stuff they were expected to do anyway.  It was a win-win.  Find the currency that speaks to your child.  Let them earn a toy over the course of a week, promise them a trip to the dollar store, if that is what they like to do.  Offer them a meal of their choice or a restaurant outing.  My suggestion is that you make it small enough to be sustainable, and if it is a bigger reward, make them earn it over a longer period of time.

7. Remember that the best kind of structure offers flexibility

If your child has had a few late nights in a row, and one day you can’t start your morning routine until 9 (gasp), understand that that is OK.  Keep in mind that rainy days will affect your outside events, and that is OK.  Note that a friend may call up wanting to get the kids together and the only day that works for her is not your scheduled “friend day” and that is OK.  Some days you may decide that enough is enough and today needs to be a stay-at-home, extra-movie, scrap-the-schedule lazy day, and that is OK.  Especially if this is your first time to make a schedule, you may get 3 weeks into the summer and realize that you have to toss it and start again, and THAT IS OK.

Get a structure in place, try to be strict about keeping it at the beginning just to get it established, and then be flexible so you can fit it into your family’s life. The point isn’t to be structured or to be super-mom.  The point is to make your life easier, their lives more secure and your home a happier place to be.  The point is to get beyond surviving the summer to enjoying your children throughout the summer.

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