ASK EMORY: Encouraging kids to have fun on their own


Dear Emory,

It’s summer, my kids (8 and 12-years-old) are out of school, and I feel like I’m now their recreation director as well as the chief cook, chauffeur, and popsicle dispenser. For a few hours a day, the kids have camp. But then they come home, and the complaining starts.

I know the kids are mad because I’m limiting their time using electronic screens. They say that they’re bored and blame me (“it’s all your fault, Mom!”) to try to get me to relent. But I hate to see them flopped on the sofa like zombies staring glassy eyed at their screens for hours at a time.

This situation is getting bad, because I’m trying to work from home a few hours a day and I really do need the kids to entertain themselves. I don’t want to give up but I’m not getting anywhere with this.

Desperate on Dundalk

Dear Desperate,

I can understand your frustration—on the one hand, grown-ups and kids enjoy the more relaxed and slower-paced summer schedule. Yet, if your kids are used to having their waking hours tightly programmed during the school year, maybe they feel lost when they have time to fill on their own.

You wouldn’t toss your kids into the deep end of the pool without some swimming lessons, “Desperate.” So, how about giving your children some coaching about what they can do to entertain themselves? Basically, your kids need to know that you are ready and willing to encourage them to try new things, to get messy, and to take some reasonable risks. That, plus a few ideas to spark their imaginations should get the ball rolling.

“Free time,” after all, becomes a great gift when children are encouraged to develop some new ideas to try, and when adults give them the freedom to experiment and explore.

Do your children like to eat? And do they know something about cooking? If they know some of the basics, you might encourage them to come up with their own pancake recipe or invent a new kind of filling for omelets. Sure, they will make a mess in the kitchen. They are children, and children are usually messier than adults. Teaching kitchen clean-up skills always goes well with teaching cooking skills.

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Another possibility is making money. Every kid I know wishes they had more money, and if they could figure out how to make it, they would willingly work hard for it. From selling hand-decorating greeting cards to washing neighbor’s cars, there are lots of ideas out there for your entrepreneurs to learn some basic business and marketing skills. And maybe they will even make a little bit of money along the way.

Drama-loving children often get excited about putting on a show. Whether the show involves a dance recital, magic tricks, or an entirely new story is up to them. You can invite the neighbors over and serve the iced tea after the performers take their bows.

Artistic kids need enough art supplies—do you need to get more? Perhaps your kids would like to put their creative heads together to make a new board game for the family to play or write and illustrate a book to enjoy with the family? New and cheaper video technology makes it easier all the time for young film-makers to practice their skills.

As you can see, “Desperate,” encouraging children to develop their abilities to entertain themselves usually means adults have to expand their imaginations as well. Whenever we want children to make more of an effort to be more self-sufficient, we adults usually need to provide more encouragement.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: