Summer camp is no longer just a way to break up the monotony of a long vacation for kids. With both parents working full time in more and more families, it’s becoming a necessity for childcare.
For 13 years after having children, I worked part time. The reason for this choice was so I would have the flexibility to spend time with my children when they were not in school.
I am not one of those parents who put supreme value on being with their children as much as possible–like the mother who once told me she couldn’t wait for school to let out for the summer. I didn’t dread summers, but I wasn’t overjoyed when they arrived.
As my children grew older and had to keep up with the demands of daily homework and projects and other school-year activities, however, I began to look forward to slower summer days. We would hang out together, entertain friends and take in a combination of low-key activities and a few bigger events. We enjoyed the flexible schedule, broken up here and there with kids’ church programs. I would volunteer for some, but not for all, activities.
That changed two years ago, when I took the plunge and went to work full time. My biggest concern in taking the job was how it would impact my children. Would they get enough of my time? Would we be able to work out transportation to school and activities? Would they feel that I am as available to them as in the past? And how—in the world—would we work out summer?
This time last year I was feeling very stressed—and guilty ahead of time—about how the summer might go. A three-week family vacation and a couple of long weekends would help. My older child would participate in two weeks of out-of-town church youth activities. My younger child would attend vacation Bible school.
He was 10 years old at the time, and I didn’t want him home day after day without constructive activities, especially while his sister was away. Now and then he would come to work for a few hours with me or with his father. Two or three weeks of morning tennis camp would be added to his schedule. And when his sister and father were both gone, he would attend a half week of a nearby sleep-away camp, which as it turned out he loved.
This year, with schools moving from a mid-August to a late-August restart, summer break will last 14 long weeks. Again, there will be three weeks of family vacation, and the 14-year old will go on two youth trips. Her in-town summer weeks will be mostly devoted to tennis workouts and volunteering in children’s programs at church and at a day camp for kids who are homeless.
My 11-year-old, meanwhile, is hitting the jackpot with church activities—vacation Bible school, Kids Off Broadway music camp, morning basketball camp and a week with his church friends at a camp in Texas. That still leaves some time unaccounted, so he will spend a week with a friend at the sleep-away camp he liked so much last summer, and he’ll be in a tennis program when nothing else is happening.
Although not overly goal-oriented in my parenting, I have for years set modest objectives each summer for my children, such as learning to tie shoelaces, or reading some award-winning books or improving diving skills. But another annual unspoken goal is for them to slow down and relax and for the family to have more leisure time together, in addition to a little more time with friends.
So my children will have a few welcome days with nothing to do but stay home, sleep in, accomplish a few chores and relax as they like. They will also—especially the 11-year old—have programmed camp-like activities chosen for their value and convenience. And except for a couple weeks of their being away, we will share lots of family evenings—eating meals, playing tennis or swimming, watching a video or playing a game, all activities that take a backseat from September through May.
Contrast this summer schedule with that of a Connecticut family I know. I innocently remarked to the mother, a middle school teacher, that she probably was eager for time off for herself and her daughters. She replied that yes, they’d have a week or so together before the daughters—finishing fifth and third grades—took off for eight weeks of summer camp in another state. While not part of my experience, in this woman’s socio-cultural set, to not send children to summer camp would be to risk them lagging behind peers.
I am thankful there are quality summer activities available to my children through church and in my community. Would I rather have the summer off to spend more time with my kids? Yes. Would I still have them in camps? Yes, both church offerings and a few other activities.
Working parents—as all mothers and fathers—seek a summertime balance in their unique family lives. Summer may be a childcare challenge—but it can still be a lot of fun!
Karen Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.