Parenting Your Kids’ Brains This Summer

By Chris Bennett  /  

It was the summer of my eighth grade year - the summer my dad almost ruined. After several years of sub-par academic performance, he had had enough. He announced to me that I would be submitting to him a one page report at dinner each weekday during the summer. In each report, I had to identify two opposing op-eds in the newspaper, interpret both positions, and submit to him my analysis, along with my own opinion. At first, I didn't know how I’d fit this into my hectic schedule of basketball, Nintendo, and reruns of Buck Rogers and the Three Stooges. But there was no sense debating the issue. He ruled and I had to submit.

I'd be lying to you if I said I eventually grew to enjoy this exercise. But I will tell you that I did experience a newfound sense of satisfaction for my education that I had never had before. I felt good about myself as I became more and more informed on the prevailing political issues of 1988 (many of which linger unresolved 26 years later). I even felt…smart.

Up to this point, my educational philosophy was simple: survive. Do just enough to pass. I was lazy and I just didn't see the point of educational achievement. What motivated me to pass my courses was solely to abate my father's wrath. I didn’t enjoy studying and I didn’t have the foresight or the care to consider how this approach would come back to bite me one day. (I still regret how much of my education I skipped.)

But that summer my eyes were slightly opened. To be clear, I didn't embrace academic excellence and work to that end from that point forward. That would be a long time coming. That summer was more of a precursor to what I would grow to become years later. (I was, after all, still lazy.)  But during that summer between middle school and high school, I felt for the first time that my mind gulped a deep breath and came alive, shaking off its self-imposed stupor. For the first time, I actually had an impassioned stance on real issues - issues far more important than Michael Jordan's stat line.

My goal in writing this reflection is to encourage the same sort of intentionality in you, fellow parent, that my father modeled for me in regards to helping your children maintain academic growth throughout the summer months. I'm not suggesting that you assign your children a daily research paper or give regular science or math lectures. Just help them keep their minds alive. My wife and I, for instance, are simply asking that each of our children have a focused time of reading each day - at least an hour. And we approve the book. 

Why is this important? I mean, come on, our kids do need a break, right? They've been at school for 180 days, for Pete’s sake! There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but I'll approach it from only two angles that are particularly dear to my heart.

First, we need to try as best as we can to help our children understand that summer break is not the goal of each school year. I was able to endure school by setting my sights on each successive break. First it was Labor Day, then it was Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas break. (And I'm still slightly miffed that kids these days get a fall break. No. Fair.)  Then there was Spring Break and Easter. And what got me from holiday to holiday were all the weekends in between - little stepping stones of lounging and sleep-in days. For me, school was a necessary evil that was more easily endured with holidays. And don’t get me started on the bliss of the snow day. My heart tingles as I think about it!

By allowing this sort of thinking to go unchallenged in our children, we’re allowing them to embrace the notion that work is bad and uninterrupted rest is the good life. This thinking is totally unscriptural. In Genesis 1:26-28, God assigned humanity the task of cultivating, beautifying, and populating the earth. In other words, humanity’s basic function was to work. And this was before the fall, in a sinless environment. This could very well be what God had in mind when he said that humanity, the pinnacle of his creation, uniquely bears his image. He worked six days and rested one to create (note the work-to-rest ratio). We also work six days and rest one (ideally) to cultivate the creation (co-creators, in a sense). 

Our kids need to know that what makes us most human is work, not to mention it’s work that gives us a deep sense of dignity and helps us maintain our psychological well-being. By pushing back on work, we are pushing back against God’s design for humanity. And when we do that, we reject our fundamental programming. We must be about the business of work, cultivating and bringing value to our world. Therefore, rest is not the goal. Rest is to recreate so we can re-create. We don’t work to get to the weekend. We enjoy the weekend so we can get back to work; back to the cultivating. 

Second, thinking is a gift from God. After all, God gave us our brains, which means he expects us to use our brains, and use them well, I might add. For many people, though, we have undeveloped critical thinking skills because we adopted the incorrect view that education was a foe to overcome rather than a fine wine to slowly and responsibly savor. This has left untold multitudes in sort of an intellectual fog, handicapped from being able to think and discern and reason clearly. In a sense, the zombie apocalypse is already upon us. It’s simple to find someone who is hostile, reactionary, empty-headed, and frivolous in expressing untested opinions. They’re a dime a dozen. Just peruse your Facebook feed. But you know you’ve found a rare jewel when you come across a person who is measured, thoughtful, uneasy to bait, and consistent. And we would be wise to befriend that person as he or she likely has much to teach us. 

How do we become such a person? Education plays a big part. Now try to avoid interpreting what I just said through a super-spiritual lens. I’m not propagating the false dichotomy of spirit verses mind. Remember, God gave us our brains. Obviously, he sees no dichotomy between the brain and the heart. I submit to you that what is dangerous is emphasizing one over the other. What I mean is that education, or learning, is the means by which we develop our thinking/reasoning skills. It’s how we learn to discern. To think on our feet. The restrain ourselves. To avoid overcommitting without thinking through the ramifications or potential ramifications. Education is, in essence, the acquisition of discipline. And this is a dying art form in our world. 

I'm one of those people who always complained that I would never use algebra another day in my life. But as a pastor, father, husband, and friend, I use algebra every day. No, I'm not doing math problems on notebook paper, but I have to reason every moment of every day. Without sound reasoning, life isn’t nearly as rewarding. You see, the beauty of math is that it teaches you to think. It teaches you to be careful, to follow necessary rules, to anticipate consequences, and to double-check. It teaches you patience, it helps you to endure tedium, and it crafts your mind into a machine of logic - behaviors and consequences. And I go to that skill all the time (or I should!). I have to think logically and with discipline as I parent my children. I have to think carefully and with restraint in the way that I interact with my wife. And I have to think with order and strategy in the way I work alongside our other pastors in leading our congregation. 

I use math every day. So will you if you desire to also be a good parent, a wonderful spouse, or a great manager. And I submit to you that you're going to use math if you desire to be a strong Christian, learning how to think through the ramifications of discipleship, cultivating a life of restraint rather than mirroring the world with its inundation of excess and decadence. Things that will surely cause our souls to shrivel if we don’t measure our involvement in it.

So do your kids a favor this summer. Help them grow in their understanding that their brains are a gift from God. They may mutiny, but try anyway. And while they are getting a much-need break from school, don’t ever let them take a day off from using their brains.