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    How to Let Kids Be Kids

    How can you let your kid just be a kid? continued...

    And maybe it's time for all of us to stop thinking of summer vacation as an opportunity to burnish a résumé. Children and parents need that hiatus to recharge. As a bonus, if you relax over the summer, you're going to be rejuvenated in time for back-to-school. Says Julie Bell-Voorhees, "When else are your kids going to catch lightning bugs and learn to play games like Jailbreak with the neighborhood kids?"

    • Be outnumbered.
      Jill Davidson, an education writer in Providence, RI, is by nature a planner and a scheduler. But she discovered that the secret to giving her family more unscheduled time was ... having a bigger family. She recently had a third son, and now "I don't have as much time, energy, or money to drag them around," she says. "I'm with the baby, Leo plays with his trucks in the yard, Elias — the future Bob Costas — does endless baseball replays outside and works on his stats, and they both go and play with the neighbors. Since the baby came along, I am paying a little less attention to them. And you know what? They're fine. Better than fine — I think they're happier."

    Of course, many of us can't or don't want to have more than one or two children. But there are lots of ways to give your kids more time with other kids (like my open-door policy) and less with you. Don't confuse loving with hovering.

    • Learn to trust your child.
      This may be the most important parenting rule of all, says Elkind. "Children are self-directed learners — they are naturally curious — and how they learn is through play." When Henry finally stopped hyperventilating about getting back to the city for his lemonade stand, he teamed up with another kid at the lake who taught him how to skip rocks. This being Henry, the rock skipping ended in some massive contest over who could find the flattest rock and skip it the most times ... and at some point, betting was involved. But in this simple, time-honored pursuit, they were learning something about the natural world, something about the physics of water and stone, and something about companionship and cooperation. At least I think they were. And heck, even if they weren't, I didn't have to listen to my 6-year-old discuss gross versus net for an hour. Now that's a blessing of play.

    As for me, well, this much I know: After a year of enrolling my sons in after-school programs to keep them busy, busy, busy, I'll be doing things differently in the fall. Sure, on a couple of days they will be out and about. And I admit it's sometimes tempting to schedule them away every day: Ah, the peace in my house until they show up at 6:30!

    But recently I talked about a new after-school program with Henry, and he was quiet for a moment. First he asked if I would be playing with him. "No," I explained, "you'll be playing with other kids." Then he wanted to know if the program could be done at our house. "No," I said, "it's near school."

    "Mama," he said to me finally, "that day is too long. And I am too short."

    I think I know what he means.

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