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This mum gave her kids an 1950s-style summer - here's how they got on

Pam Lobley set out to give her kids an 1950s-style old-fashioned summer. She tells Áilín Quinlan how she turned the experiment into a book.

A summer with no scheduled activities for the kids - the thought was tempting, but was it even possible?

It’d be like something out of the 1950s, Pam Lobley mused.

The long summer holidays were still months away when the writer and mother-of-two realised that family life in the Lobley household was not just frantic, it was, frankly, unhappy.

“We were too busy,” recalls the author and newspaper columnist.

“Many of the reasons I had wanted children – lingering over books, laughing fits at bedtime, meandering days of outside play – never had time to happen because all we did was steer ourselves through jam-packed days of homework, organised sports and structured activities.”

It wasn’t unusual - everyone she knew was doing the same thing.

Yet, she recalls: “The kids were whining and complaining all the time.” And somehow it all left her feeling hollow – especially when she started to think about summer.

“I didn’t think of it with longing; I was not day-dreaming or musing, ‘Gee I long for those hot and lazy days of summer’. 

“No, I was panicking. I was thinking ‘Holy cow, I gotta make some plans for the kids this summer.’”

As she sifted through the choice of swim team, night camp, scout camp and the various ‘enrichment’ classes on offer for keeping kids busy during their summer holidays, she asked her sons what they wanted to do in the summer.

“Why can’t we just play?” they begged.

Her boys, she realised, were way overscheduled; from chorus and band, to soccer, piano lessons, boy scouts, karate, basketball, and Jack was even considering wrestling.

Summer would bring more of the same, on top of which there would be morning and afternoon camps involving various structured activities.

“The boys were cranky and I felt this couldn’t be all there is; it wasn’t much fun.”

She asked around to see what her friends kids were doing – outdoor day camp, a ‘super fun science camp,’ a week at this, a week at that, and all on top of a very heavy sports schedule.

The parental mantra, she recalls was ‘you gotta keep ‘em busy, sign ‘em up and sign ‘em up!’ 

“Ugh,” Lobley thought. 

Then her friend Jane, similarly frustrated, joked that her kids were going to do nothing; in fact, she declared, they were all going to have a summer from the 1950s. That stopped Lobley in her tracks.

“Moms,” she pondered, “didn’t plan their children’s lives in the 1950s; they just let them play.” Was it possible to just let her boys play in the garden or at the town pool and fill their days themselves without any help or direction from her and an array of arts teachers and sports coaches?

“I felt our lives were too structured; there was too much stress and life was flying by.”

She started to read up about the fifties and her attitude changed. Suddenly, she found herself thinking that it was up to her to decide what was right for her young sons – even if it wasn’t what everyone else was doing.

Lobley, then in her mid-forties, set out to give her kids an old-fashioned summer.

“I wanted to believe there was still a summer out there that could be free of pressure, where sports are played for fun not on organised teams with four games a week,” she says.

“A summer where kids read books in the middle of the day for enjoyment, not because I’m making them read a certain number of chapters a week.

“A summer where kids get so bored they actually invent new stuff to do or pick up a new hobby or day-dream.” 

And this was how summer 2008 worked out for the Lobley boys and their Mum – and it was great.

For a couple of hours in the morning Pam worked in her office at the family home in New Jersey, while the kids played in the garden or the house, or watched cartoons.

“At some point in late morning we’d go to the town pool, run errands, or get together with friends.

“The pool was the place where everyone would go and it had a big playground so they could meet their friends and play cards, go swimming and play stickball.” 

This really was stepping outside the box.

“At this time most of my friends would’ve had their children signed up to a morning or afternoon camp of structured activities, or they’d be attending all-day sports camps or classes on crafts or drawing.

“Some of them played sports and they would be on sports teams, practising a lot and travelling to games an hour’s drive away or more in basketball or soccer.

“They’d have a schedule. Much like we had had previous summers. We’d see them at the pool but they were on a schedule whereas we weren’t.” 

Although the boys didn’t miss doing the usual round of scheduled summer activities, there was definitely boredom, she recalls – in part because so many friends were tied up in scheduled activities and not available to play.

And in 2008, says Lobley, her sons did not have smart phones, ipads or tablets – they played charades, and tea parties, had war games and engaged in games of fighting and running.

They played a lot of Frisbee, capture-the-flag, and tag.

“Inside the house they played a lot of Lego. They liked board games and they learned to play poker; that summer we had a lot of poker games!”

 On the downside however, they did end up bickering and fighting if they spent too much time together – especially when it rained.

However, recalls Lobley, the boys enjoyed that summer so much that in subsequent summers - until they became teenagers and got summer jobs - her mantra was to keep things loose and light in summertime:

“We didn’t go to camp!” Looking back, the most important thing that summer 2008 taught her was:

“If you’re not careful your days can be frittered away doing a bunch of stuff you’re supposed to be doing instead of spending time with the family you love.

“I’d recommend slowing down,” she says, adding that she now believes that when possible, it’s better to give children the experiences they need rather than mindlessly going along with what everyone else is doing.

“That summer in particular, I feel I really got to know the boys at that stage in their lives; about what kind of things they needed, as opposed to what society and the culture you live in is telling you to do with your kids.”

Why Can’t We Just Play? By Pam Lobley, published by Familius €14.50