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COLUMN: Surviving the summer vacation

Summer is officially here. That means the kids are home. All ... day ... long.

For those of you who aren't parents, or have their kids out of the house already, this would not apply to you. Go grab a clean cup from your non-kid-smudged cupboard and make yourself some coffee/tea. Sit at a table you don't have to wipe grape jelly/sticky syrup from, and enjoy the non-kid quiet.

For all you others, you may have to lock yourself in the bathroom to read this in peace.

As a mom of four kids under the age of 14, it has always been a challenge for me to not panic as the school year dwindles down. What will I do with them all summer so they don't drive me nuts?

Over the years, my "mom senses" have enabled me to develop a survival guide to summer with kids.

Rationing food

Kids are human. When they get bored, they head for the kitchen. I'd question that logic, but I've been known to be halfway through a TV program before realizing I'm shoveling popcorn in my mouth.

During summer, my kids morph from recognizable human beings to walking stomachs with mouths. Short of padlocking the fridge, I have developed a system for snacking that seems to work.

I make up a snack menu with four food groups: dairy, carbs, vegetables and fruit. Each subject has two options - dairy would have cheese slices and yogurt, carbs would list a granola bar and mini bagel. I assign each food a point value, the least liked food get a higher point value. Each kid is allowed two snacks a day, but they have to be from different groups.

The kids keep track of their points and the one who earns the most (i.e. eats the most celery sticks), gets to pick items for the snack menu the following week. On those weeks we've had mango, muffins, coffee-flavored yogurt and things that I normally wouldn't have thought of.

I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with this system. However, even though the menu is posted on the fridge, I still get questions.

"Can I have a bowl of cereal?"

"Is that on the snack menu?" I ask, without looking up from my work.

"Well, no."

"Then there is your answer."

Maybe I should put pictures on the menu.

Doing chores

This, surprisingly, is pretty easy. I told my kids that mornings would be set aside for doing chores, and then we can have the rest of the day to do fun things.

My kids promptly stayed in their rooms until noon.

Well, the chores may not be done quickly, but I get the morning to myself.

Sometimes when I have to leave for work, I get drastic: I take the TV and Wii remotes, lock the kids out of the computer and hide their cell phones until chores are done. It's tough, but at least they are motivated to clean.

Dealing with teens

We all know that planning regular excursions are necessary to keep from going insane. The warm weather practically begs for outdoor recreation.

For younger kids, it's easy to take them to the park, petting zoos, lakes, library programs, etc. They are as happy as clams to get out and do something.

However, when you have kids of various ages (i.e. teenagers) who don't want to do family outings outside where everyone can see them with their families, it can be challenging.

The solution? Bribe them. Tell them if they take their younger sibling to the park, you will let them hang out with two of their friends for another afternoon.

If they go out with the family now and not sulk about it, you'll buy them a cappuccino.

If they take their siblings on a carnival ride, you won't post their childhood nickname on their Facebook page.

An alternative is to take them on an outing where they can't possibly see someone they know. This may require going to playground two states over.

Combating boredom

Inevitably, despite your best efforts, the dreaded phrase "I'm booorreedd" will unfurl from your kids' lips. Some parents have a cute little jar with slips of paper in them for just such an occasion. The kids can pull a paper out and it will say "Make cookies" or "Have a pillow fight."

That may work with some kids, but mine are pretty creative on their own.

They have put on plays that required all the toys in the house. Shown each other how practicing with golf clubs in the front yard can result in a trip to the emergency room (and isn't that fun!) They have filled up tubs of water on the patio and splashed enough that I could have squirted dish soap on the panes and they would all be clean.

They have done improv skits that have made me laugh out loud. They have made up games that sound like they've come out of a Lewis Carroll story. They've wrecked the only clean room in the house making blanket forts so the family room looked like a refugee camp.

It's amazing how their imaginations kick into high gear when I say, "Oh, you need something to do?"

Yes, I know that these childhood summer times won't last forever. Soon they will be working at jobs or hanging out with friends all the time. I won't have toys scattered all over and the milk will actually be put back in the fridge.

In the meantime, however, I'll be spending my summer pasting pictures of food to my snack menu.