Aren’t Kids Supposed to Be Off for the Summer?

Pricey camps, luxe pools, artsy activities … with summer on the horizon, many parents are wondering what happened to the days when you could tell your kids, “Go out and play!”

Summer activities for kids are out of control. Photo by Clint Blowers.

A year ago last winter, I woke up at 3:30 in the morning for the third night in a row, in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. I could barely breathe.

“This is crazy,” I whispered as if I didn’t want to wake up my husband, even though I totally wanted to wake up my husband. It seemed only fair that Thad share this moment with me—the two of us, panic-attacking in unison as all couples should when tormented by one of the most frustrating responsibilities of rearing children: The Scheduling of Summer.




I’d been poring over our options for about a week already. It had taken me almost seven months—starting, approximately, at the end of last summer—to compile a manila folder stuffed with potential activities for those now-unscheduled 6.5 hours on each of the 57.5 weekdays of summer fun we had to fill for our girls, Blair, seven, and Drew, five. I’d clipped art studio ads from the free township paper, pulled tags from fliers in coffee shops about sailing lessons on the Cooper River, googled “YMCA” and “Arden” and “Adventure Aquarium” and “science camps in South Jersey” and, eventually, “Why in the name of all things holy are there no camps during the last two weeks in August?”

I swiftly narrowed down the choices based on three factors: fun, cost, and distance from home, since I work full-time there, writing in my basement. We had a baby girl, too, who’d be nine months when school let out on June 16th, but she was easy; we’d keep her at the sitter we loved, where she already went every day, expecting to do no more than nap and eat. But the other two? They had to be somewhere.

I puzzled together two possible agendas and wrote them, side by side, on a yellow legal pad, which I stared at a lot, periodically moving it from one surface in my house to another, as if the best choice might be more likely to reveal itself on the dining room table than on the Formica.

Plan A: Two weeks at the school district’s summer camp (I’d heard it was boring, but it was cheap), then a week visiting my parents in Erie, Pennsylvania then a week of “Stage Teenies” acting camp, then school camp for two more weeks (did I mention it was cheap?), then back to Erie for a week by the lake and another at a zoo camp (“Dynamic Dinos!”), then a week in Cape May, then two weeks at the Markeim Arts Center’s camp and, then, mercifully, back to school. All for the low, low cost of $2,211.20.

Plan B merely swapped in three weeks at the International Sports Centre camp, just 3.5 miles away in Cherry Hill (Giant indoor playground! Roller rink! Weekly swim-club trips! Free nylon backpacks!) ... all for a higher total cost of $2,533.60. It seemed worth it. (Having someone else teach your kids to roller-skate? Priceless.) But this total was $150.80 more per kid than what most affluent families—which we very much were not—paid to occupy their kids in the summer, or so reported an American Express survey about the $16 billion Americans spend on summer kid-care. “The summer camp” now practically occupies its own economic sector. (One of my friends almost crashed her car when she saw a billboard in Marlton for a soccer camp … for 18-month-olds. “They can barely walk!” she screamed, to no one.)

“Why are you so freaked out?” Thad yawned through the darkness of our room, staying as close as possible to his edge of the bed, as if concerned that I might start to flail.

“We have to fill out all the forms! We have to pay the fees!” I whispered at him, almost starting to flail.

“Isn’t it early to be worrying about this?” he asked, stuttering as the sentence came out of his mouth, since he knew it would likely release The Kraken.

Early? Are you kidding me? It’s late! Disney Week at the acting camp filled up two days after registration opened last year. And if we don’t pay in full by Friday, we’ll lose the Early Bird discount. Plus, in order to be eligible for the last two weeks in August at the Sports Centre, both kids need to be enrolled there for at least 10 days beforehand. And I think I saw a Groupon for Markeim, but it might have expired already. I mean … we are running out of time!

It was March 3rd.

Thad fell back asleep instantly, the way husbands can. But I lay awake, calculating the hits to our checking account, wondering if I’d be able to refrain from throwing the kids out a window when they began complaining that they didn’t want to go to camp. But, mostly, I was hating.

All that free time. All those long days. All that living that was supposed to be so easy.

I hated it.

Summer.

Freakin’ summer.

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