Thursday, June 01, 2023

Summer Break: To Know What It Means To Have The Luxury Of Choosing

My wife Jennifer and I spent a chunk of the the 90's living and working in Germany. We were there because Jennifer was an executive with Volkswagen. Every August, the factory closed, giving workers a long, paid, summer holiday, which was common practice throughout the country. This was on top of another month of paid vacation that employees could take during other months of the year. Since the kids were out of school for their own summer break, many families would opt for two full months off, together, traveling and sharing other experiences.

We didn't have children at the time, but what an incredible thing for German families. As summer break approaches here in the states, however, I'm saddened by how many preschool-aged children (and teachers) just continue to trudge on. It seems that if we had our priorities right, if we really valued and supported families -- or human beings for that matter -- everyone would have a summer break.

The argument against it, of course, is that employers, or the economy, couldn't afford it, but it's not like Germany doesn't have plenty of giant, bureaucratic, profitable corporations. I'm sure shutting down the factories for a month means leaving money on the table, but it's not like Volkwagen, Bosch, and Adidas are going broke. At one point during our time in Germany, management needed to cut costs. They gave employees the choice: a cut in pay or a four day workweek. They overwhelmingly chose the four day workweek. In other words, they chose time off over money.

I wonder if American workers would make that choice. I mean, compared to Germany, we in the US obviously place a relatively higher value on work than we do on families. At least that's what our policymakers have decided. Germans do have higher taxes, but that pays for healthcare, child care, retirement, and a social safety net that lets relatively few fall through. Yes, there seems to be more cheating, both on taxes and the collection of social welfare benefits, but they don't let the cheaters ruin it for everyone else.

One thing we do know is that the suicide rate for young people who get a summer break will drop during the summer months, just as they drop over weekends during the school year, and rise again in the fall. And we know that as fewer and fewer children get their summer breaks over the course of this century, the overall suicide rate has climbed. All of this, of course, is just correlation. It's certainly more complicated than that. And I'm also aware that for children with dysfunctional family lives, school can be a refuge. But the evidence before us indicates that being in school is more stressful for most children than staying at home, and getting a regular break from stress, knowing how to destress and what that feels like, is a vital life skill.

My data can be picked apart, of course. People far smarter than me are trying to figure out our nation's disturbing youth suicide trends. And perhaps suicide rates are not a good indicator to compare mental well-being, but I hope we can all agree that it is something to take seriously.

But my point is not to quibble over data, but rather to engage in pure, amber-ized nostalgia for the summer breaks of my own youth: eating popsicles in the shade; feet so dirty they never really got clean; riding bikes up and down the block; sneaking into neighbors' garages; climbing fences; gangs of kids ebbing and flowing throughout the neighborhood; idly watching the shadows cast by leaves as they dance on the walls; swimming and running through lawn sprinklers; pick up games of all kinds.

Of course, being nostalgia, I'm sure the lived experience wasn't as beautiful as I remember it, but from where I sit today, what actually happened is a moot point: the way it exists in the present, which is to say, in my memory, is of days during which I awoke each morning and chose how to spend my time. I chose what to think about, what to create, who to play with, and whether or not I was "successful," however I chose to define it. That's why the loss of a proper three-month summer break is so awful. These poor kids are being robbed of the opportunity, for at least a small part of their lives, to know what it means to have the luxury of choosing.

I know, I know, the curmudgeons argue, But that's not real life. In real life you don't get to play and choose. Or perhaps they say, But all that playing and choosing is a waste of time. We must get them ready for real life.  Or they argue, perhaps with a sigh, But the parents need their kids to be in school because they have to get to work. That's just real life.

What if real life included two months of "summer break" every year, and even four day work weeks, not to mention regular weekends and holidays? I don't know what's going on in Germany today, but that was actual real life for working families during the 90's. That's quite a bit of free time, time during which to choose to eat popsicles and run through sprinklers. What if summer breaks didn't end when we graduate?

Of course, the mountain is beautiful in the distance, but steep when you're on it. The collective and contentious effort required to drag our nation to anything like this would be a long, difficult slog. But as preschool teachers and parents preschoolers, we have the small, but mighty power to not let the promise of summer fade away. We can, at least for the next three months, let up, even if just a little. We have it in our power to grant the children in our lives the freedom to experience real life as a place of choosing what it is we will do and think about with the short and precious time we have. And if we do this, they will grow up to be adults who know, in their hearts, minds, and bodies, no matter what real life looks like, that summer break is possible.


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"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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