Liz Kearney: 'Help! My kids are taking the holiday spirit a step too far'
It's 10pm and as the last light of the summer evening begins to fade, all is quiet on our peaceful suburban street.
Except for my back garden, where two little boys are running around at top speed, screeching like hyenas and alternating between throwing handfuls of muck at one another and dousing one another with the hose. I've asked them to come indoors at least 10 times, but they can't hear me above the shrieking. If I don't step into the garden and physically pick them up, they'll be there all night.
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In hindsight, it's no surprise that they're tearing around like this, seeing as they've survived mainly on a diet of ice-cream since the warm weather began. High jinks and hilarity have lately been the order of the day, but sometimes it seems like it might have all gone too far. I'm pretty sure no one's had their hair washed for going on three weeks.
In fairness, our household routine is not always this chaotic. During the school term, the kids are reasonably well-behaved, and usually bathed and tucked up in bed by 8pm, not re-enacting Lord of The Flies in the back garden.
But as the boys get older, I'm learning that summer parenting is a different discipline. It's a balancing act: on the one hand, the sun is out, we're on holidays, we all want to enjoy the freedom from routine that these long, precious days give us.
But on the other hand, it's rapidly becoming clear to me that if you give a five-year-old an inch, he will take several miles. And before you know it, all the routine and structure that you work so hard on over the year has fallen apart, and you're left with two tiny tyrants who think they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. Am I doing it all wrong? Or is everyone else's house this crazy in the summer?
"The best part of summer is the letting go: no homework, no alarm clocks, no school lunches," agrees writer and blogger Andrea Mara.
"My kids stay up later, they sleep later, they play outside late into the evening, and sometimes wear the same shorts for days on end, but nobody minds. And I find that rather than misbehaving under these loosened rules, my three are happier.
"Having said all that, in our house, it wouldn't work to completely let go. They go to bed later, but there's still a set time. They eat more ice-cream, but there's still a sensible breakfast each morning. They play all day, but still (mostly) make their beds when they get up. On balance, I think it's good to let them go a bit feral over summer without worrying about getting back to routine."
Writer and mum-of-three Kate Gunn has a similar take. "My children are all in the tween/teen phase now and the joy of summer has taken on new meaning for them. Meeting friends without embarrassing parents hovering around, swimming, cycling, exploring hidden trails and learning new skills of risk-taking and increased responsibility along the way. However, the more freedom they get, the more they expect. I've had to rein them in several times already and explain that their new found freedom is a privilege not a right - break the rules and it's back to spending time with mum. That usually puts the manners back on them."
"Summer is a more unstructured time of the year for families," says psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting Joanna Fortune. "There isn't that demand and pressure to be up and out at certain times each day. It is important for children to have this break their 'working year' as free play time offers them an opportunity to assimilate the learning, to continue to learn through their language of play, and to embrace the creativity that can emerge from these free floating states of boredom."
Playing like this, adds Joanna, is hugely beneficial for kids, as it reduces anxiety while increasing their capacity for emotional self-regulation and peer interaction.
So I'm learning to embrace it. But before we know it, it's going to be back-to-school time. How will we adjust? The key is to plan ahead, advises Joanna. "Start the typical school 'sleep and wake time' routine a week before school starts back.
"Involve your children in buying, finding and prepping school bags, pencil cases and uniforms for school as this cues them in a doing rather than saying way that school is coming back. Have a celebratory 'midnight' (late-night) feast in pyjamas or picnic in the garden to mark the end of the summer season in a fun way."
Looks like the kids can just stay in the garden, in that case.