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.


Freakin’ summer.

I’ve always been a working parent, so many of my parenting skills involve planning how my kids do things and go places while I sit at a desk. Over the past seven years, I’ve grown so adept at cruise-directing the five people on our little love boat that Thad sometimes calls me Julie McCoy, as in, “Hey, Julie McCoy, can you tell me again how we’re going to get two girls to two softball practices at the same time at two different fields when we have a baby napping at home and this hangover?” And I know. Because I come up with a plan. I am always, always, making plans.

So why does planning summer turn me into such a whack job?

“I start stressing about it the moment Christmas is over,” confessed Marisa, my Main-Line-mom friend who runs her own business and, therefore, needs to pathologically plan the hell out of her kids’ lives year-round, as I do. Though I have to admit I feel slightly less pathological knowing Marisa turns whack-job-y months earlier than I do. Even so, she schedules summer the way we do—spending sand pails of cash to put her two girls in camps, from which they typically return tired and happy. “I wrestle with it so much,” she added, as if tired and happy children warranted a call to child services.

“So do I!” I yelled. “But why? Most of the time, my kids like camp, too!”

Weren’t we actually accomplishing what every parent aspires to? Weren’t we doing everything we could to give our kids opportunities we’d never had? Because I certainly did not spend the summer of 1978 digging for T-rex fossils or fashioning West African tribal masks out of mud.

Inevitably, though, the kids complain. Marisa’s kids waited until a few days after camp started last summer: “Why can’t we just stay home? Why can’t we hang out at the pool all summer, or the beach … like our friends do? They’re so lucky.”

During the school year, we rarely worry about keeping up with the Joneses, because we never really see what the Joneses are doing. Everyone goes to school, my kids go to aftercare for a few hours, the Joneses go home, and then everyone meets up again at soccer or CCD or playing hide-and-seek in someone’s backyard.

In the summer, though, it’s impossible to miss the Joneses. My kids still get up early, still carry backpacks, still eat brown-bag lunches as they head off to whatever activity I have booked. But when we get to the community pool for the hour before it closes, they hear—in great detail—how the Jones kids spend their days: sleeping in, watching the new Barbie movie on Netflix, throwing on swimsuits so they can spend the day, the whole day, lounging and playing with the other Joneses at the pool. Unscheduled. Unstructured. Free.

“There’s a line drawn. There are the pool moms and there are the not-pool moms,” explained Leslie, a mom-of-two in Abington who drove 20 miles in January to wait in line to sign her kindergartener up for a YMCA camp where he’s “going to be for eight weeks whether he likes it or not. I have no choice.” A friend of hers also didn’t have a choice when she was downsized and thus forced to become a “pool mom,” since she could no longer afford to spend two grand sending her progeny to every class and camp imaginable. And so it was that not-pool-mom Leslie sat at her computer all last summer, watching Pool Mom—a woman who swore she would never be a pool mom—post photos on Facebook of her pool-mom-ing for what seemed like 13 hours a day.

“I was so jealous,” Leslie said. It wasn’t that she wanted to sit at a pool all day, exactly. (Well, maybe a little.) She just wanted her kids to be able to have that opportunity, too. The opportunity to “do nothing.” Like she’d had when she was a kid.

“God, I loved summer,” she said dreamily, as if summer was a hot guy.

I remembered it, then. Just like that. I could practically still feel the dizziness leading up to the last day of school, my dad counting down—“Five more wake-ups! Four more wake-ups!”—and me anticipating the start of this magical eternity filled with … absolutely nothing. Literally. No international sports centers. No dinos, dynamic or otherwise. No camps (aside from that one week my parents sent me with a neighbor kid to Girl Scout day camp and I cried and cried). The only place I expected to go was up and down the sidewalk of the 1800 block of West 33rd Street, on my light blue 10-speed. The only thing I expected to do was, maybe, grow.

Of course, I had a stay-at-home mom back in the ’70s, an age when no one ever called moms who stayed home “stay-at-home moms.” I was sure, though, that we didn’t actually spend the whole summer staying home. Surely, we went to the zoo. To the library. To ride the bumper cars at Waldameer amusement park. Except—o­ther than that traumatic week I spent wearing a Brownie vest in the wilderness, I had no memory of doing anything, ever. Even stranger, I had no memory of resenting not doing anything, ever. I only recalled running outside in the morning, eating peanut butter and jelly at Danny Kaczmarek’s house with our lunch spread out on an ironing board notched at the lowest level while we watched Captain Kangaroo, then running home at dinner with two half-moons of sunburn on my cheeks.

The following day, I did it all over again.

Was that really it?

I called my mother to check. “When I was a kid, what did I do all summer?”

“Hmmmm,” she replied, then paused, taking far too long to recall the precious memories she carries with her always about the long summers spent with her only child. “You played a lot. And got bored.”

And there it was: the source of my near-heart failure and night sweats. I did n­othing as a kid. And I loved it. Yes, I could give my own kids the opportunities I never had as a child, like writing plays that they get to perform while wearing very fancy Jasmine costumes. But the one opportunity I had as a kid that I wanted them to have—a lazy, boring summer that allowed them to fill in the blanks for themselves—I couldn’t give them.

I clearly wasn’t alone. Declaring “I feel guilty,” my neighbor Ellie hired a 22-year-old nanny who cost 25 percent more than what she’d pay for camps—more than $4,000—so her sons could have a “relaxing summer,” stay in their jammies and watch SpongeBob, and then go to the pool with the nanny, whom the Pool Moms would despise because she had absolutely no back fat.

It sounded nuts. Paying thousands of dollars more so your kids could do … nothing? But if it was crazy, why did I suddenly feel the panic rising again, the gravitational pull toward my computer, the compulsion to Google “Summer nannies in South Jersey”?

In the end, I did what I do best—I came up with another plan.

Plan C involved fewer dollars (practically $1,000 less than Plan B). It involved the girls doing cool activities and doing nothing, which meant I’d be the most awesome-est, most balanced, most envy-free/guilt-free/panic-free mother on the block. Because Plan C also involved me. A whole lot of me. Plan C required me to take off work for the entire month of August.

The only way I could finagle it would be to frantically puzzle out how to reschedule my own summer schedule. Clearly, I’d have to make up the lost income somewhere. But I was pretty sure I could swing being a Pool Mom for 31 days.

My kids would have the best of both summers.

And so would I.

Five months after my last panic attack, on the first Monday morning in August, I didn’t have to pack lunches, or snacks, or water bottles. I didn’t have to search the house for the nylon camp backpacks that always seemed to be in the van, or spray the kids with sunscreen at 8:02 and pray that it would last all day while they were gone. I didn’t have to do anything. Which was far more disconcerting than I recall it being 34 years ago, when I was seven.

“What are we doing today?” Blair asked when I made her turn off the TV after two and a half hours of iCarly reruns.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The pool?”

“The pool? We aaaaaaaalways go to the pool!” she moaned like an angry goat.

“Are you joking? We hardly ever go to the pool!” I moaned back, feeling The Kraken rising.

“Yes we doooooo,” her sister Drew chimed in, punctuating her whine with a little fake sob. “It’s so booooooring! We want to do something fun!”

“Like what?” I asked, wondering in that very second if I was wrong about it all.
Maybe it doesn’t matter what a kid does or doesn’t do in the summer, since she’ll always look back on it lovingly 30 years later. Because 30 years later, she’ll be dealing with this.

“I know!” Blair yelled, jumping up and down on the ottoman in her Tinker Bell PJs. “Let’s go roller-skating at that place! I looooved that place.”

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