"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 4, 2012
Welcome to Summer
by Melissa Howell

"Welcome to summer!" proclaimed the large banner that I painted and hung on the garage door to greet my children when they returned home from their last day of school. Throw in some homemade tropical popsicles (tropsicles?) and a Hula Hoop party (think the props game from "Whose Line is it Anyway?"), and we had ourselves a lovely summer kickoff celebration.

Now how many days until school starts?

Here's my little confession: I used to fear summer. It's a big change, for kids and parents, to go from the structure of school to the freedom of summer. But I have learned not only to embrace it, but to love it.

Summer is more than the taste of sticky sweet popsicles dripping down a tightly gripped hand, more than the sound of crickets chirping a rhythm as the sun sets and leaves lingering warmth on the evening breeze, more than a break from backpacks and homework and days spent in the classroom. It's a freedom, a feeling, an opportunity to return to a more simple time.

As a young girl, I remember summer with its family vacations, trips to the library and time spent at our family cabin on a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota. But what I remember most is countless days that played out as such: waking up; eating breakfast; and being turned loose outside - my juvenile memory even recalls mom locking the door as to prevent us from coming back inside, though the truthfulness of this evades me; mom throwing a sack lunch out the door for our daily picnic with the neighborhood kids; an afternoon of outside play (in the interest of full disclosure, living on a country road at the edge of a national forest certainly provided for many play opportunities and adventures); coming in for dinner; then back outside for an evening of playing kick the can and badminton until the sun slipped behind the densely-treed forest and the mosquitoes came out like a swarm of B-52s and we were forced inside.

And then we woke up the next day and pressed "repeat."

Granted, things are a bit different now. When my 9-year-old wants to ride his bike around the neighborhood, I make him check in every five minutes. I am working on letting go and extending this to maybe six or seven minutes.

When I send my kiddos to school, I am handing over much of their time to the teachers, to decide how it should be spent. When school lets out, the teachers hand the children's time right back to me. And I have to choose how to spend it. Some of their time, I keep for myself. Some, I give to them to spend. Other moments of time, we give away to others.

In his well-known and often-referenced October 2007 General Conference talk, "Good, Better, Best," Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, "Some of our most important choices concern family activities... In choosing how we spend time as a family, we should be careful not to exhaust our available time on things that are merely good and leave little time for that which is better or best. A friend took his young family on a series of summer vacation trips, including visits to memorable historic sites. At the end of the summer he asked his teenage son which of these good summer activities he enjoyed most. The father learned from the reply, and so did those he told of it. 'The thing I liked best this summer,' the boy replied, 'was the night you and I lay on the lawn and looked at the stars and talked.'"

Elder Oaks also warned about "the overscheduling of children," and stated that "children's free time has declined by 12 hours per week, and unstructured outdoor activities have fallen by 50 percent."

This was in 2007. I can only imagine those numbers have changed even more.

What better time to increase unstructured outdoor activities than summer? This is what I have in mind when I give my children some of their time to spend. They might spend it setting up play tents in the backyard, or watching a snail move slowly across the deck, leaving behind a trail of slime. They might spend it playing board games in the shade under a tree, or adding to their insect collection.

For the time we give to others, we are part of an amazing group of local moms and kids called Club SOS (Summer of Service). We meet together once a week throughout June and July and perform acts of service around the community. We've done such things as wash police cars; sing patriotic songs to senior citizens; weed, clean and mulch local parks; decorate meal bags for the terminally ill; compile and send care packages to military personnel, and more. This will be our fourth Summer of Service, and I love that my kiddos have come to know that it wouldn't be summer without doing service for others.

Don't get me wrong. When the school year rolls around again I am ready to resume the schedule and activities that come with its return. But I no longer spend my time wishing away the glorious days of summer. And I certainly have no idea how many days are left until school starts.

Well, actually, there are 80. But who's counting?

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About Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell was born and raised in the woods of northern Minnesota. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

As a single 20-something, she moved to Colorado seeking an adventure. She found one, first in landing her dream job and then in landing her dream husband; four children followed.

Upon becoming a mother, she left her career in healthcare communications to be a stay-at-home mom, and now every day is an adventure with her husband Brian and children Connor (9), Isabel (6), Lucas (5) and Mason (2).

In addition, she is a freelance writer and communications consultant for a variety of organizations.

Melissa serves as Assistant director of media relations for stake public affairs and Webelos den leader

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