When my son and daughter were in school, every June when summer vacation came I used to let out an audible sigh of relief. For one thing, I’m not a natural early bird, but for all of the years of our kids’ infancy and toddlerhood I was of course required to act like one! Once both children were in school, we were all happy to retire the alarm clock when summer arrived — or at least reset it for a more leisurely time.
But I remember the Waldorf teachers often urging us as we set off for summer, “Keep the form.” Meaning, keep some rhythm and structure to the days, even though school is no longer the primary organizing principle. (Some ideas on that in a moment.) Indeed, rhythm is such a fundamental need for children that it is Principle #3 in the seven principles of my book Parenting for Peace.
Rhythm from the Beginning
This is most true of the young child, up to seven. Child psychiatrist Bruce Perry points out that the young child’s healthiest early brain development is nurtured by consistency and predictability in her daily life. When a child lives regulation, consistency and stability, the child’s will energies are fostered, and his brain is wired to be regulated, consistent and stable. This is the foundation for peace in the home and in the world, for achievement in school, and success in life!
The young child most especially thrives on rhythmic routine, consistency and predictability. It weaves a sense of security into the fiber of his very cells as they are busy building brain and organ tissue. Rhythm should permeate the child’s daily, weekly and even seasonal life. Meals and bedtimes are consistent and regular. Activities at home as well as outings take on the predictability of ritual, which the child can count on and keep a sort of internal beat to: today we wash the sheets, then we go to the farmer’s market, now we stop and see Aunt Marian.
Rhythm During School-Age Years
Even as your children grow beyond the early years, rhythm (along with another P4P principle, Simplicity) continues to be a great source of strength, security and centering. It is especially important for a child who is feeling the stress of a heavy homework load, together with pressures of extracurricular activities such as music lessons or sports; or a second- or third-grader whose sensory field is overwhelmed by a frenetic playground or the visual bombardment from the typical array of posters, letters, and other wall coverings in many classrooms, or simply the pace of activity.
During these years when school — either away or at home — is the most prominent daily event, one of the most positive points of rhythm you can weave into the life of your child(ren) is the family’s evening meal. Quite a bit of research has revealed dinners together to be one of the strongest predictors of everything from better school performance to fewer eating disorders to lowered risk for engaging in risky behaviors like drugs and alcohol; when scrutinized further, it’s not merely dinner together, but dinner together featuring vibrant conversation.
As children spend more time away from home at school, the warmth with which we have hopefully surrounded them in their early years can sometimes “catch a chill” out there in the world. Continue to foster warmth at home wherever possible. Cuddle them if they’ll still let you! One way that some older children will happily accept warm physical affection can also become a point of nightly rhythm — a foot rub or back massage at bedtime, with nice oil warmed between your hands. My daughter loved this well into high school!
Another way to weave rhythm into the lives of your children when they’re away much of the weekday is to discover for yourself some things that soothe you the most, and, without much discussion or fanfare, enrich their lives with these rhythmic aspects. Maybe it’s a soothing warm bath on Sunday night to warm up for a reasonable bedtime for meeting Monday morning refreshed and energized; maybe it’s a time preserved for reading a few pages of a favorite book or magazine; maybe it’s a cup of hot water to begin each day; maybe it’s a candle lit at the breakfast table. They may not say much, but if you fill it or light it or set it out for them, they will likely come.
Preserving Rhythm During Summer Vacation
Most school-aged children will relish the chance to sleep in — and maybe so will you! Leisurely mid-morning breakfasts together are something you can delight in like never during the school year. Depending on the ages of your children, it’s helpful to come up with a daily and weekly schedule to bring some structure to your children’s (and your) slower summer days. Here’s a great example of such a schedule (which of course is to be tailored to your lifestyle, beliefs and children’s interests).
While I think pleasure reading is a great summer activity, I’m not a big believer in a strict “keep them learning” approach, with workbooks at the breakfast table and such. If there are engaging projects a child is really passionate about, I say go for it. (In the above example, the writer’s daughter wanted to study French, and another wanted to start on chapter books.) But there is a pedagogical basis for the importance of time for the material a child has just covered in school to sort of “settle in” or “sleep” into the consciousness. A more neuroscientific term for this would be “consolidation.”
I also think it is critical, especially in our sped-up, info-saturated world, for children to have good chunks of the kind of wide-open, unscheduled time that only summer vacation allows. This is when their imaginations can fly free (provided those imaginations haven’t been unduly freighted with external media saturation — another blog post entirely!!) and lead them into inner and outer explorations that sometimes serve as early seeds of adult vocation or avocation. It’s also when they can engage in the kind of “mindlessness” that scientists are just now discovering is as important as mindfulness for the optimally healthy flourishing of the brain. (Bonnie Badenoch explains this at five minutes into this fascinating video discussion of the strengths — and rarely-discussed limitations — of meditation.)
Now, one of the greatest joys of cultivating a rhythmic home life is to occasionally venture outside that rhythm and do something unexpected, fresh and fun. Nothing affords us the opportunity and invitation for that quite like summer vacation! And when you return to the familiar rhythm, it will be infused with new delight and will bring all the more inner strength to the entire family.