What My Son Learned Over Summer Vacation

With summer coming to an end, I have to wonder: Did my kids spend their three months away from school wisely? In one regard, I’m not so sure.

Back in June, as the school year wound down, my husband, an economist, alerted me to a study on the summer slide, in which kids lose approximately a month of learning over summer vacation. That amount goes up for kids of low-income families and accumulates year after year, widening the achievement gap. According to a New York Times article:

“The American ideal of lazy summers filled with fun has an unintended consequence: If students are not engaged in learning over the summer, they lose skills in math and reading. Summers off are one of the most important, yet least acknowledged, causes of underachievement in our schools.”

So, when school let out in June, we tried to figure out how to instill some formalized learning into our kids’ summer break. We started by asking our eight-year-old son to log onto the Khan Academy website and take a few math lessons each day. Khan Academy was founded by MIT and Harvard Business School grad Salman Khan as a simple way to teach math for free via YouTube. It’s been endorsed by Bill Gates and was trumpeted last week in an editorial in the Boston Globe. And yet, our son, who loves math and computers, was underwhelmed. He did three of the lessons before deeming it boring and surfing back to his first love, Club Penguin, where he upgraded his split-level igloo with some new slushie machines and a few snow chairs.

We weren’t sure how to respond. Should we have forced him, Tiger-Mom-style, to do the math? Didn’t Barack Obama’s mother famously roust him at 5 am for supplementary education? Or, should we have allowed him to dabble in interior design while masked as a penguin in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt?

It may seem trivial, but it wasn’t an easy decision. So not easy, in fact, that we couldn’t make one. Our indecision turned to stasis, and by July, I was I comforting myself that he’d be in camp much of the summer, and didn’t learning how to make lanyards and executing football plays count for something? Over the course of three months, we traveled to California, heard our baby say a few new words, and watched her perfect her dance moves. We saw old friends and made new ones. The kids caught spiders and picked flowers and paddled around a lake.

Our son never did make it back to the Khan website, and my husband and I feel a tinge of regret that we didn’t find some way to keep him engaged with math this summer, if not through online lessons, then in some other way. We wonder: Did we do him a disservice by not pressing the issue? Or, were we correct not to coerce him into doing something he didn’t want to do, in the interest of not muddying the waters for the future?

When his third-grade teacher asks him to write the requisite essay on what he did over summer vacation, I know the collection of stories from which he’ll choose. But what I don’t know is if there’s another story, untold, that we should have helped him discover.