My eldest son will be 14 in a few weeks and is just finishing his first year at secondary school. I'm dreading the thought of how to entertain him over the summer. Last year was hard enough, and now he has a full extra month off, with June.
At 14, there are far fewer camps that will take him, and he is of course pickier and does not want to be in a camp where he is the oldest. I work full time but can work some of my mornings from home, to keep an eye on him – my husband has some flexibility in work, too – although he will be by himself for a good bit of the time.
I'm worried that it will be all Xbox and YouTube and him being bored and moping about the house. (He does this when he has a few days off school, let alone three months.) We had tried to get him to the Gaeltacht, but it did not work out, partially because of the cost and partially because he was not keen to go. I don't think he was ready to be away from home for three weeks.
Secondary students in Ireland have longer summer holidays and shorter terms than most other countries in Europe. Although many students can benefit from a long break, this can also bring a lot of stress to parents struggling to find childcare and to keep their children occupied for the summer, particularly in the first few years of secondary school. As you say, younger teenagers are often too old for organised camps but too young or not ready for activities or extended residential camps. In addition, with longer holidays and more days to fill, it is hard for parents to know how much supervision they need. They are too old for a childminder yet still need parental monitoring and involvement – quite a lot of it, in fact.
Negotiate a plan with your son
Probably the most important thing you can do is make a plan for the summer with your son. Map out the next three months with a schedule. First put in major events, such as family holidays and anything else that is already planned. Then discuss with your son how he can fill the remaining weeks. Given his age, the goal is to empower him to come up with his own realistic goals and ideas. Present the summer as an opportunity for him to try out, experience and learn new things. What would he enjoy or like to learn? How can he plan out his days? Here are some ideas that might work for a child of his age.
Help out at camps or volunteering Although he might be too old for some camps, he might be the perfect age to be a helper. If he is sporty, for example, could he help out as a mentor to the younger kids at some local camps? There may also be opportunities for him to volunteer in his local community, perhaps helping an elderly neighbour with shopping or even helping an environmental charity to clean up the town. Giving him an opportunity to contribute in this way will be great for his self-esteem and learning.
Look for paid work Could there be an opportunity for him to get some paid work for at least some weeks of the summer? Aside from looking for a few hours a week in a local shop, he could also seek out his own employment, by advertising that he is available to cut people's grass, walk dogs or help a parent mind younger children. There may also be opportunities for him to work with a family member or friend. Perhaps someone you know might want help sorting out admin or doing another domestic chore. Aside from earning money that he can spend on fun summer activities, taking on the responsibility of working will be a great learning experience for him.
Balancing the budget When you discuss what he would like to do I am that he will list many activities and events that cost money, such as trips to theme parks and sporting events, playing tennis with friends, and going to movies. It is important to try to include a few of these, but set a budget that he has to keep within. Explore ways he can earn more money, such as getting the paid work I've just mentioned. Or can you give him some extra pocket money for doing household chores or taking on new responsibilities? You can set up a holiday fund with him where he can earn an extra €5 each week if he does certain chores at home.
Daily plans and setting limits Negotiate some limits and goals for each day. You might agree some basic expectations around when he gets up, what chores he is responsible for at home and how much screen time is reasonable each day, such as two or three hours. Encourage him to have alternatives to the Xbox, whether this is playing a musical instrument or simply reading a book. You can of course motivate him to achieve these goals by making his pocket money dependent on keeping to this routine.
Plan your own time with your son You and your husband should plan carefully your own time with son. Are there special things you could do with him that you may not get a chance to do when he is older and more independent? These could include special trips, such as going camping together, or home-based projects, such as learning to cook together, or teaching him DIY or simply planning to watch the World Cup together on TV.
Don't overplan Finally, don't overplan with your son and fill every moment of his schedule. A change of pace over the summer, and even some boredom, is not a bad thing. It gives him some space to contemplate life rather than just being on the busy school treadmill.
John Sharry: How can I keep my 14-year-old occupied over the summer?
Sheila Wayman: Help children 'follow their bliss' to summer camp