Are Your Kids Slacking Off this Summer? Don’t Stress Out, They May be Learning More Than You Think


This is a post about a parent’s guilt. Or, better put, it’s a post that calls into question what parents feel guilty about, and why.

Yesterday was the first day of August, which means that, for millions of parents across the country, it’s time to start thinking seriously about getting the kids back to school. This includes shopping for back-to-school clothes and supplies, and getting the kids back on some semblance of a schedule in preparation for the early morning school bell.

But the realization that summer has zipped by and it’s almost back-to-school time is stress and anxiety-inducing because, for many, well-laid plans formed in early June went wholly unfulfilled. These plans centered on having kids working on reading, writing, arithmetic, science and foreign languages over the summer. By honing these skills over the summer, the thinking goes, kids can continue advancing academically and get a leg up on learning.

But then life happened. Workbooks and learning apps went unused, with time spent instead on the beach, riding bikes and running through the sprinkler. And every August parents feel like failures because summer was “wasted” and, rather than getting ahead, they fear their kids have fallen behind.

Now, every situation is different, and certainly time spent in front of the TV or an iPad is rarely time well spent, but I think that many parents are way too hard on themselves about the progress – or in their minds, the lack thereof – that their kids have made over the summer.

Perhaps I feel this way because I’m rationalizing – guilty of the same relative inattentiveness to my own children’s academic advancement during the summer months. That’s undoubtedly part of it. But I think it has more to do with a conviction that, while summer is a time for kids to learn, it’s a time to learn differently.

Learning by Understanding 

I’m knee-deep in a great book, an autobiography by Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. It’s an easy and insightful read about a brilliant and quirky man who, at a young age, became a key member of the Manhattan Project team in Los Alamos. He was a genius and a jokester, not unlike Benjamin Franklin. While the memoir necessarily delves into Feynman’s life as a physicist, it also captures his curious and inquisitive nature which led him to dive deep into subjects such as biology, Japanese culture, safe cracking, music, gambling, and Mayan hieroglyphics (among many others!) during his lifetime.

There is a passage from the book, almost an aside as Feynman describes his time spent as a student at MIT and Princeton during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, that I think is highly relevant to how we, as a society, should think about education today. While lamenting how many of his fellow students were skilled at memorizing theorems and formulas, Feynman observed that they were unable to solve problems through the application of their knowledge.

Feynman wrote: “I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way – by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile.”

In other words, they knew a lot, but could do little with it.

This is a weakness of our modern day education system as well. We teach kids to memorize but not necessarily to understand. We tell them what to know – knowledge – but not how to understand and apply that knowledge. This is by no means a critique of schools and teachers – there’s only so much that can be expected in a classroom full of 25 students. It’s simply a realization that wisdom and insight cannot be nurtured in an environment focused on memorization and standardized testing.

Author Seth Godin has strong feelings about what we should be teaching our kids. He thinks it boils down to two key things: (1) teaching kids to lead, and (2) teaching them to solve interesting problems. In his education manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, Godin poses a question which suggests that, some 80 years after Feynman’s observation at Princeton, we still haven’t cracked the code on nurturing wisdom and insight in our schools. Godin writes: “Will the next generation know more facts than we do, or will it be equipped to connect with data, and turn that data into information and leadership and progress?”.

I think the point that Feynman, Godin, and many others are making is that intelligence is not a zero-sum game. It’s not an objective to be achieved. Rather, it’s something developed throughout a lifelong journey. And it can’t be measured by a letter on a report card, a number on a standardized test, or a dean’s signature on a diploma. After all, in the age of Wikipedia and Google, is it really that important to memorize all of the facts and figures that one must to become a good test taker?

I believe the most intelligent among us are those who readily acknowledge their lack of understanding, not those who put on an air of sophistication in order to prove their intellectual superiority to others. To “know it all” is to be ignorant, because once you know it all there’s nothing left to learn. It’s the difference between what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed” and a “growth” mindset. Individuals who believe their talents can be developed through hard work and good strategies have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset because they worry less about looking smart and instead put more effort into learning.

Wisdom is the result of curiosity. It’s a byproduct of humility. Intelligence – as measured by understanding and application, not memorization – is a process of growth over a lifetime.

This process of growth is something that parents can teach and nurture. And, for kids, there’s no better time than summer break to begin that journey.

Curious and Carefree

Now, all of this is not to say that parents who diligently continue their children’s formal education over the summer are doing anything wrong. Just the opposite, in fact. Of course it’s important for kids to learn the skills and memorize the information that will help them achieve in school. You have to play the hand you’re dealt.

But just because you may not have followed through on grand plans to mandate math exercises and Spanish tutoring for your kids this summer, it doesn’t mean you should feel guilty about it.

Summer is a time to explore and discover, to be curious and carefree. {tweet that}

It’s the time for kids to read for fun, without any expectation. If kids learn to love reading for leisure, they’ll learn despite themselves.

It’s the time for kids to explore the wonders of science, but not with a nose in a textbook. A Lake Michigan beach is a great place to learn geology while hunting for Petoskey stones and other treasures. Biology is best studied on fishing piers and forest trails.

It’s the time hone math skills – no calculators necessary. There’s no better place for kids to learn how many pints are in a quart then a u-pick raspberry farm.

It’s the time to gain an understanding of business and finance, but not in the way these topics are taught in school. Basic principles of marketing, budgeting and profitability – not to mention interacting with other people – are best learned through trial and error working a lemonade stand on the street corner.

While we’ve tried to keep our kids plugging away a bit at formal learning this summer, we’ve definitely prioritized experiential learning. I’m sure our oldest daughter has gotten something out of the spelling lessons we’ve had her working on, but I bet she’s gained far more from her experience learning how to make friendship bracelets at summer camp and then teaching others how to do it. It’s not the skill, per se, that matters.

It’s the experience of learning how to teach a skill to others that leads to growth. That’s what Godin is getting at by emphasizing leadership and problem-solving as the two essential skills to teach kids.

It’s August. School starts soon. Your kids may not have accomplished as much as you had hoped this summer. Don’t freak out. Don’t feel guilty. They may be learning way more than you think.

FamilyJay Harrington