Children have fun in backyard of house on warm summer day. Brothers and sister sitting on the grass ...

I Made My Kids Entertain Themselves This Summer & Actually It Kind Of Worked

No camp. No screens. No problem?

by Megan Angelo

The questions start in May. “What do you guys do in the summer?” go the whispers in the pickup line. “Going anywhere fun? Are you doing any camps?” The questions have a sunny sound, and people want a sunny answer. They want to hear about the beach, ice cream, camping.

Up until this year, though, my honest summer answer would have gone something like this: “Well, on a typical day, we’ll draw the blinds at 6 a.m. Fire up the first of our daily 29 episodes of Bluey. Then we’ll get right down to bickering til it’s time to mobilize (late, of course) for the older kids’ attendance at a 90-minute, $600 a week camp. After dropoff, I’ll speed home to spend seven of those minutes working and the remaining 40 attending to my youngest’s closed-captioning preferences. At which point it’s time to jump back into the car because camp is ending soon, and camp is always 40 minutes from home, no matter where you live. When we get home again, it will be time to whip up lunch from the barren fridge — each child will be offered the last, wettest baby carrot and opt to starve. After that, perhaps an ill-conceived last-minute jaunt to an attraction that will be closed by the time we get there, prompting all of us to say things we can never take back. What about you guys? You do the Jersey Shore, right?”

Which is all to say: When it comes to summer, I’ve never had what you could call a good plan. It’s always been a season where erratic bedtimes, abysmal bodily maintenance, and screens as pacifiers make a late and expanded comeback — kind of a toddlerhood (Taylor’s Version), if you will. My response to these patterns is never intentional. It’s always triage: camp, screens, camp, screens, more screens, plus the occasional over-ambitious activity to assuage my guilt for all the screens. I’m not going to say I thought I was doing a great job, but I thought I was doing my best. How could anything that felt so difficult, requiring so much money and energy and gas, be anything but a noble maternal sacrifice?

After several summers on Earth, my kids knew how to sculpt, improvise, ID several bird calls, and tag up at first base. But they didn’t have a clue how to entertain themselves.

As this summer crept closer, though, I realized why I was feeling so much apprehension. I’d created something worse than a monster — I’d created a binary. Like our weekends, winter breaks, and the endless unpunctuated stretches of pandemic, summer has always existed on an either-or. Either my husband and I are actively entertaining our kids — getting them out, doing something fun with them in it, facilitating club or team activities — or my kids are on screens. It’s either parent-arranged fun or Nintendo Switch. Suddenly it was all horrifyingly clear: After several summers on Earth, my kids knew how to sculpt, improvise, ID several bird calls, and tag up at first base. But they didn’t have a clue how to entertain themselves.

They’d never been bored.

So, though I feared for my sanity and productivity, I decided to bite the bullet and make this the summer of boredom. No camps. Not a single me-facilitated day trip. Not so much as a me-facilitated craft. Without exception, there would be no screens until 3 p.m. on weekdays. At 3 p.m., they could either choose to veg out with up to two hours of screens right then, split the two hours up over the course of the day, or save the two hours for right before bedtime. (Yeah, I know you’re not supposed to do that, but as someone who can hardly drift off without The Bachelorette in the background, I don’t have a leg to stand on there.)

The first day of summer, my kids woke up around 6:30 — a fascinating departure from their behavior just 24 hours before, when they had to be screamed out of bed one minute before the bell rang at their school. I laid out the rules. I explained that they would have tools at their disposal. I’d purchased a whole-summer pool membership for what one week of camp for one kid would have cost me. My husband had ordered our oldest an Apple Watch, so he could have some freedom in our neighborhood.

“Sounds good, Mom!” my sons said, brightly. My daughter — the youngest — nodded in agreement. Then they all plodded in the direction of the TV.

“Oh, no, sorry, it actually starts now?” I said.

For the next week, the detox was brutal. They became combative. Irritable. “I’ll do anything,” my oldest said. When I made it clear I wasn’t going to budge, the middle one said, desperate: “Then what are we doing today instead?”

I squared up. Took a deep breath. “That’s up to you.”

We spend so much time as toddler moms being bombarded with ideas: Do this! Try that! Have an Olympics day! If you love your kid at all, make a sensory bin!

The sounds began. The sounds were uhhhn, unnnh. Really any combination of U and N. The sounds were long, and frequent. They led into a series of complaints and questions designed to break my soul. Someone’s toe looked weird. Someone wanted bread, but they didn’t like this bread. Someone wanted to know: Why couldn’t they go out on the roof? They wanted to.

At my laptop, I gritted my teeth. Just give them TV, I thought. Just send them to camp; it’s not too late. I bet the weaving one still has space. The weaving one never sells out. I wondered about my own parents, in the ’90s. How did they beat the sounds? Oh, right. They weren’t home. Because no one worked from home then. But I do, and so does my husband, and there’s a good chance we’ll never work out of the home again. There’s no escape for us, when it comes to the sounds, I realized. If we were all to spend the next decade living together, the sounds would have to be beaten.

My resolve strengthened, I hung on.

Four days later, as if something had left their bodies, the sounds stopped. At the end of Week 1, we left for a beach weekend with family. In years past, I would have panic-packed multiple screens in case of behavior emergencies. This time, I took a risk. I packed nothing. I waited to see if the kids would mention it. They didn’t — not in the car, and not on the vacation itself.

Two weeks in, we hit our stride. The days unfolded roughly thus: Sleep late, wake up, read (or at least pretend to), do a chore (and here I’m using the word do so, so loosely). Head to the pool, where I would work and they would have swim lessons and free time. Come home, veg with screens, play with friends, eat dinner, play with friends, go to bed. Routinely, they went without a full hour of screen time a day or without screens at all. There were days where they just seemed to… forget. The pool and the friends did the trick more than any toy, book, or diversion. This was curious to me. I knew these things were fun, and that socialization was healthy, but I didn’t expect what were essentially long stretches of unstructured time to fight screens and come out on top. I’ve always thought that to beat screens, you need elements of similar flash and complexity. But here were my kids spending hours inspecting moths in the sticky pines at the pool, never complaining there was nothing to do. Nothing is exactly what beat screens.

It took me some time to figure out how nothing pulled this off. Part of the general hand-wringing narrative around screen time is that the deal with the devil affords no takebacks; once you’ve given screens, the thinking goes, good luck walking them back. Similarly, we spend so much time as infant and toddler moms being bombarded with ideas: Do this! Try that! Have an Olympics day! If you love your kid at all, make a sensory bin! No one pops up a few years later to say “Hey, you can knock that sh*t off now.” It’s not hard to see how we got to binaryland. It’s not easy to find your way out of it. But it’s also not all about what our kids are used to.

I’d wanted my kids to take control of their lives, but control has to be taken from somewhere. The somewhere, I realized, is me.

It’s about what we’re used to. Nothing was scary for me because nothing required an abdication of control on my end. I’d gone into this thinking only of how attached my kids were to screens and structure; I hadn’t realized how much I relied on those things as a completely frictionless, get-them-out-of-my-face solution. Long after my kids had stopped asking for screens, long after they’d accepted making box castles or doing spit-take contests in the front yard as a substitution for their old pastimes, there was still a little summer voice inside me echoing: Just put on Bluey. It’ll be easier. That’s what that strangely proportioned little dog is for. You won’t have to think about what anyone’s doing or where anyone is.

I’d wanted my kids to take control of their lives, but control has to be taken from somewhere. The somewhere, I realized, is me, and I’m still getting comfortable with it. It’s not easy to sit at the pool writing this, glancing up only every 10 seconds instead of every three, relying mostly on a few thousand feet of chain-link fencing as a backstop. It’s not easy to hear the words “See ya, Mom,” and then sit down to work. It would be so much easier just to know they’re on the couch, physically safe. It would be easier to drop them off at camp or to plan a single fun-mom excursion on one day, then letting Bluey take the wheel for the other four.

But this is better. I’m here to tell you, on the other side, that it’s a lot better. I haven’t heard a word about Roblox in months. When my boys stay up late, it’s often to make their own plans for the next day. The other day, my oldest showed me the bottoms of his feet, alarmed: “What’s this?” I looked and explained that his skin was getting tougher, from so much running barefoot outside.

“Is that bad?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said. “Just new.”

Megan Angelo is the author of the novel Followers. She has written for The New York Times, Glamour, and Elle, among other publications.