Preserving Their Minds

Summer is terrible. Oh sure, it’s sunny and warm, and everyone is running around like happy little gazelles in a Broadway musical, but under all of that so-called-fun lurks a monster. One that preys upon children. During the summer months, kids are free. There’s no school. Assuming you can get them away from their devices, they spend all their time splashing through pools or sprinklers, staying up late watching Dr. Who, sleeping in, and engaging in as little intellectual activity as possible.

But this bohemian lifestyle demands its pound of flesh, or rather, its pound of grey matter. River Mom and I have noticed that it seems to dull our kids’ minds, shaving off the sharp edges of knowledge and leaving a dull, bland, nothingness in its wake.

September will roll around and the kids will go to school and come home confused about topics they were on top of in June. For example, last Fall, River Son came home unable to handle equations dealing with fractions, even though he’d totally aced that subject three months earlier. Now, true, these were fractions, so I was equally clueless, but the obvious degradation of his mathematical knowledge was alarming. Meanwhile, we were horrified when River Daughter started the school year and totally mixed up the various phases of cellular mitosis.

Obviously, the best thing we, as parents, could do to protect our children from this menace would be to have them cryogenically frozen the moment school’s out in June and thaw them when September rolls around. This approach would also save us a ton on camp fees. Unfortunately, trustworthy cryo-freezing technology isn’t readily available, so the kids have to live out the summer months, getting dumber each and every day.

Here in the River Household, we’ve worked hard to battle the dumbing-down dangers of the summer doldrums. This has not been easy, because the River Children generally do not have much interest in anything remotely educational during July and August. Drop a non-fiction book in front of them and they recoil in horror. The words, “Can you write that down?” cause hives to break out on their skin. And don’t even think about mentioning math. Or burpees.

In the past, we’ve tried to trick them into thinking when they least suspected it. We’d slip in seemingly-innocuous questions during their regularly-scheduled play in an underhanded attempt to shove some good, old-fashioned learning into their heads.

“In Five Nights at Freddy’s, would you say Chika’s head is oval shaped or more like a rhombus?”

“We have to leave at 4:00. It’s 2:23 now. How much longer can you stay in the pool?”

“That was a nice fly ball you just hit out to left field. Let’s measure the distance it travelled and the angle it took off from your bat and see if we can figure out how high you hit it.”

“I love what you built in Minecraft! It reminds me of something that was destroyed in the War of Saint-Sardos in 1324. It was between England and France and is often thought of as a precursor to the Hundred Years’ War. Let me tell you all about it.”

The kids soon caught on, however, and our attempts were fruitless. Still, we soldiered on and looked for new ways to stimulate their minds.

Once we scheduled a “Game Night” with the kids, to gain their interest. As soon as they sat down at the table, we quickly shoved all the games to the floor and dove into a very intellectually-stimulating lecture on adverbs. It was not a happy night. Another time we tried threatening them, saying that if they didn’t study, we’d cancel the family trip to Six Flags. They called our bluff, however, and we had to back down. We love Six Flags, too.

Finally, River Mom and I hit upon the one thing we could get them to do that would have a beneficial effect on their criminally-underused brain cells – reading.

Don’t get me wrong –  we love to read here in the River Household. I read, River Mom reads, the River Kids read. We have no difficulty getting them to read – in fact, we sometimes have to pry books out of River Daughter’s hands while she sleeps. The problem was, as soon as we mentioned that it would be good for them to read each day during the summer, we ran into resistance. Suddenly reading wasn’t cool, it was a chore. Still, we knew we were on the right track. There had to be a way to get them to read for extended periods of time during the summer. It was River Mom who finally hit upon the perfect method. Bribe them with cash.

Yes, we bribed our children with cold, hard cash. A bit crass, perhaps, but it did the trick. Almost too well. River Daughter has been known to read four or five or seventeen books at once, and we had to place boundaries on the terms of the agreement, lest we wind up in the poorhouse.

“What are you reading today, Daughter?”

“The fifth Harry Potter. And the latest Magnus Chase book. And this YA dystopian novel a friend gave me. And the Outsiders. And this book on Alexander Hamilton. (Do we have tickets yet?)  And this other YA novel another friend gave me. And this sequel to a book I found in the library last week (oh, here’s the first one, it’s probably overdue). And…”

At that point I quietly backed out of her room and closed the door.

River Son took a more pragmatic approach. If he was earning money for reading an hour a day, then he would very happily read sixty minutes a day. But not sixty-one. He sticks by this rule with an almost-fanatical precision. The weird thing is that he loves reading, loves what he’s reading, is totally engrossed in the book, but when the timer goes off, he slams the book closed and searches for his headphones. He’s read for his hour and now he’s going to do something else, like watch people watching people watching people playing video games on YouTube. He’ll even stop reading when he has two pages left in the book if the alarm goes off! And then the next day he’ll pick up the book and finish it in 90 seconds. How is that even possible?

I have trouble stopping reading when I’m within 30 pages of the end, and have been known to stay up way past my bedtime to finish a story. Yet River Son has some weird, other-worldly ability to just stop cold.

“Son? Don’t you want to know how it ends?”

“Very much! It’s very exciting!”

“Then why don’t you just finish it? You’re almost done!”

“The timer went off.”

I can’t stand it. Sometimes I have to grab the book after he’s asleep and read the last two pages for him. Not that I’ve read the rest of the book, but I just feel like SOMEBODY needs to read the ending right away. I’m not as good at delayed gratification as River Son.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. They are reading. And while they read, their minds are hard at work. And while they’re at work, they’re preserving little sprigs of knowledge. Each sprig saved is a personal victory for us, the River Parents. And when the new school year begins and all of their classmates have lost two months of knowledge over the summer, our kids will only have lost maybe three weeks.

And really, nothing happens in the first three weeks of school, right?

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About the Author: David Neilsen