It is that time of the year again when moms like me worry about keeping their teens busy throughout the summer. For years, I have seen fellow moms fill their kids’ calendars with back-to-back activities ranging from college prep courses and sports’ boot camps, to getting a driver’s permit, volunteering to rack up Student Service Learning (SSL) hours or working as a lifeguard to obtain professional experience.
The idea behind uber planning for our children is to set them up for success in the adult hamster wheel. The traditional yardstick is, “get a good education, land a good job, earn a good salary.” I get it. Our teens need to be well-rounded in the eyes of college admission gatekeepers. As an incoming 11th grader, my daughter has been feeling the pressure to excel academically and diversify her extracurricular activities since middle school. Being an American teen is the start of the rat race. No wonder, many of them, especially girls, suffer from anxiety and depression.
According to a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published in February, nearly 60% of teenage girls experience persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. During the pandemic, 30% of adolescent girls have seriously contemplated suicide. Child psychologists emphasize that what teens need is a sense of connectedness, and the ability to forge healthy offline relationships with peers.
It is OK to slow down and do nothing
To preserve my daughter’s mental health, I have decided to have her spend the summer in Pescara, a seaside town of 130,000 people on the Adriatic coast, for the second year in a row to master the art of “loitering,” which literally translates into, “hanging out and doing nothing.” As an Italian mom, I believe there is value in a carefree approach to life, especially for American teens who often feel pressured to be overachievers.
In the U.S., the act of “loitering” is criminalized. Ever noticed those street signs that read, “Loitering is illegal here. You can be fined up to US$ 500?” The underlying assumption is that what is perceived as “unproductive behavior” leads to engagement in nefarious and illicit activities. But, maybe, this is exactly where the problem lies. Young people need spaces where they can chill out in healthy ways.
Also known as “vagrancy” laws, these provisions target the poor and homeless and can be traced back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in mid 16th century England. They are meant to discourage people from coming together without a purpose. Hostile architecture is an urban design strategy that serves this goal.
In Italy, piazzas or public town squares, and benches do the exact opposite: they signal to people that it is OK to stop, sit down, hang out, and relax.
In Italy, loitering is a way of life
As an Italian who migrated to the U.S. when I turned 18, I never fully grasped those loitering signs. After all, I come from a country where “loitering” is a way of life. We think of it as La Dolce Vita. It is what Americans dream of when they fantasize about Italy or rave about Fellini’s masterpiece movie. Loitering, for Italians, is about hanging out with friends, strolling aimlessly while savoring a gelato, or engaging in people watching from a bench in a park or the street.
Our iconic piazzas are often built around a church and are meant for congregation. People are encouraged to socialize, and benches are plentiful. During summer evenings, piazzas regularly host concerts and other cultural events, while restaurants and cafes sneak in a few extra tables to accommodate residents and tourists alike. In small towns across Italy, piazzas are where the elderly mingle with the younger generations, catch up with local gossip or sit in contemplation.
This way of life is what sustains Italians day in and day out. It is a way of nurturing the social fabric and embracing our shared humanity. It is also what made the pandemic especially hard for many Italians. Conviviality is in our DNA. Social isolation is akin to solitary confinement. You may remember, during pandemic lockdowns, images of Italians singing from their balconies, and finding ingenious ways to toast from a distance. Even a virus can’t quite keep us apart.
Hanging out is good for our mental health
As the mother of a teen of African descent, I am especially cognizant of the pressure that young Black girls in America are under, a phenomenon that Parents magazine associate editor A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez documents in her piece about Black Excellence. They must work twice as hard, defy race and gender discrimination, hide their emotions, and live up to the strong Black woman stereotype. A summer of loitering for my daughter is vital for her mental health. It is a way of decompressing, letting go of social expectations, and connecting with peers on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
Last summer, when I asked my then 15-year-old how she felt after spending two months in Pescara, she replied without hesitation that in Italy she felt safer from gun violence and systemic racism, freer to leisurely sit at cafes late into the evenings, and happier to aimlessly hang out in town squares. The bonus of a summer of loitering on the Adriatic seashore is that my daughter is now fluent in Italian and is considering a semester abroad in Italy. As a parent, I also learned something useful: success is not about uber-planning. It is about raising emotionally healthy kids who are content to slow down and enjoy life.