Originally published in The Globe and Mail
Summer is a funny time for teenagers. It’s so different from the school year, when everything is scheduled and accounted for, filled with what needs to be done. But summer is this big chunk of time that can be like a block of unformed clay. It sits there and you can make of it what you want. Or you can let it just sit there.
“Yeah, that’s my vote. Let me just have it sit there. The perfect summer. Nothing.”
Parents may not have quite the same perspective. “That’s exactly what I worry about. I don’t want him to just waste a summer. The summer is an opportunity for him to make something out of it, to have some kind of valuable experience. Not spend two months as a vegetable. And then any opportunity is gone.” So what is best for a teen to do with the summer? There are a number of rather different possibilities. Kids with an eye on university and career have the constant pressure of building their résumé, which, with each new entry, increases their chances of having a better future. Everything counts. No time can be wasted. No unspoken periods that were not somehow creatively utilized. Tutoring underprivileged school children. Taking a course in Western philosophy as it pertains to a more globalized world. Volunteering in a wildlife study that tracks the moose population during the summer months.
Such experiences may be good, but not so much because they look good on an application. Maybe it is good to seek new experience, where your teen gets to see different places and different ways of life than he would otherwise – experience that opens him up to a bigger, more complicated world and expands what he knows. Not for the résumé, but for truly expanding who he is.
Or how about getting a plain old boring and stupid job that pays money? Many teens do this out of necessity – if they are fortunate enough to be able to find a job. Working during the summer, aside from the benefits of earning money, can impart an important piece of wisdom: The great majority of jobs that pay money require that you be at a particular place for an extended period of time doing certain required tasks that may not be fun.
That is, most teens with summer jobs get to experience the basic deal of what a job is. Also, teens with summer jobs get to see that the amount of money they are making for the amount of time that they are working is not a whole lot. It does not come close to translating into what they would need over the course of a year to support themselves in the adult world, let alone support a family.
After a few months of hard labour, they often realize, “If I want to have the kind of life that I always imagined, then I am going to have to somehow move myself up from where I am right now. Pretty far up.”
It is a sobering concept. But not a bad one for high schoolers to have: “I have to worry about what I’m doing now, so I can get to where I want to. That sucks, but I guess that’s reality.”
There’s one last summer possibility. After a genuinely gruelling school year, maybe summers are a time for your teen to kick back and do what he feels like doing, with little required of him. It can be a time of replenishing that sets up the next school year, which will come soon enough.
Let me add that there can be something very special about summers: You are doing summer leisure activities – usually with friends – sitting around a pool, at a beach, at a friend’s house, playing some pick-up basketball. And the memory of this is definitely about summer – you don’t have these same kinds of thoughts about late February. It’s a core of memories that may make up your teen’s finest nostalgia
“It’s true. When I think back on my life and what was most special, the memories that I value the most, that I would have been the most unwilling to give up, I think of those summers in high school. There was a real texture to my memories of those times that really makes them stand apart.”
So what’s the best approach? I vote for any of them. A job. A special experience. A time for hanging out that has a poignancy that really can’t be replicated during the rest of the year.
Except I don’t like the one about improving résumés and university applications. It’s just a little too much of what already can be overwhelming for a teenager. It gives a message that I don’t like: that lives aren’t to be lived, that everything must be calculated.
For teenagers summer can be special. But there are many kinds of special summers.