Thinking back on it, I was always anxious about June. Even in years when I disliked the demands of the school-year schedule, all of the changes that summer represented were stressful. As a young child, I remember feeling at loose ends, and as a teen I worried about finding a decent summer job. With my own kids, I dreaded both the long days that had no structure and the crazy days that involved driving the three of them back and forth to numerous activities.
Then why did I wax nostalgic as a preschool director, quoting Anna Quinlan about the taken-for-granted joys of parenthood that pass by much too quickly? Why did I call on parents to enjoy “the incredible trip of raising a child,” and why did I hope everyone could put away their “to do” lists and enjoy a summer filled with warm breezes and life’s simple pleasures? Like childbirth, summer vacation with kids is easier to idealize the further it recedes in one’s rearview mirror.
So I turn this post over to my daughter, Alissa Chung, mother of three, who will be in the throes of transitioning to summer in less than two weeks:
Parents, I still wish you all of those happy times and more as the warm breezes blow. But I also know now that it isn’t as easy fit in life’s simple pleasures as I thought. Ah, summer. Sunny days, warm breezes, Lake Michigan. What’s not to love?
Every year summer begins, and my girls and I enjoy taking a little longer to get ready in the mornings and putting on our shorts. We go to the beach, the pool, and put out the splash pool and the sprinkler in the back yard. We hit all of the shady parks. We take outings to the zoo or the sprinkler parks in the city. Then we feel refreshed and ready to get back to our regular school year schedule. And then we realize it is still June. Ugh. Summer.
Yes, I confess. Every year I look forward to the beautiful three months that our Midwestern city has to offer, and every year I turn into the Ebenezer Scrooge of summer. It seems like such a good idea, and I have many fond memories of summer. But as a parent, I find the many disruptions and long periods of unstructured time to be frankly stressful. It seems like just as we get settled into a summer schedule, camp ends, or some other activity ends, something new starts, and we never quite get into a rhythm.
Some people thrive on this unpredictability. They and their kids love the long, lazy days and think of endless creative ways to pass the time. To me, these people are the parents who do things more beautifully than I do. I end up feeling like a one-woman entertainer/chef/chauffeur/event planner who is never quite on top of things.
Everyone complains about the winter and how long it takes to put on winter gear. Summer is definitely a more enjoyable season, but not necessarily less time consuming. In order to go to the beach, it takes a good hour to get 3 kids into bathing suits, slather them with sun block from head to toe lest they develop skin cancer, pack up towels, snacks, and a change of clothes, go to the bathroom, and head out the door.
The beach itself is always fun, unless you do all of this and show up on e coli day. Three crying kids send you driving up and down the shore to find a beach that is open (why the adjacent beach often does not have an e coli problem is still a mystery to me). Then it is merely a matter of making sure that none of the kids drown or run away or have to go to the bathroom. I am always amazed by people who bring reading material to the beach. After the fun is over, it means packing back up, finding all of the missing buckets and shovels (good luck), and cleaning sand out of your house and car for the next three weeks. Then you get to do it all again the next day! Bah humbug.
Based on my experiences working with kids and families in my private therapy practice, I can say with some degree of confidence that the problem of summer does not discriminate by the age group of the children. Older children require less direct supervision, but there are plenty of in-between age groups where filling a summer is a challenge. There are the kids who are too old for day camp, but not old enough to get jobs. There are kids who are old enough for summer jobs, but there are no jobs to be had. There are fabulous camps for older kids that cost a whole summer’s budget, but only last for 3 weeks.
Schedules are constantly changing because no activity covers the entire summer. Parents with multiple children can spend most of the summer in their cars. And even the kids themselves notice the problems. When I have the annual discussion with the kids in my practice about what their summer plans are, most kids are eager for a break, and some insist that they want few structured activities for the summer. Every year I suggest that a few weeks with nothing to do will be great, but it will get old quickly. Every year kids tell me I am wrong. By July, most are in my office complaining that they are bored and should have chosen to do more.
The long summer is a romantic notion in our minds, but it is really based on an antiquated system of education built around the agricultural seasons. We no longer need our kids to harvest our crops, so instead we have to program their summers. While it does not really affect preschool children that much, once children are in elementary school, they spend the first 2+ months of the school year making up for what they forgot over the summer. Parents who wish to prevent these losses end up signing up for summer school or paying for tutors.
Working parents have special challenges in the summer because they have to cobble together camps and various forms of child care every day. August is an especially brutal month because there are almost no camps, and many summer child care helpers head back to school. I honestly don’t know if there is nothing to do in August because everyone goes on vacation, or if everyone goes on vacation because there is nothing to do. Yes, summer is inconvenient and expensive.
The long-term solution to all of this will be year-round schooling with more regular breaks throughout the year. I remember being horrified by this concept as a child, but as a parent, I see its brilliance. Summer is an institution, and changing it will be challenging because we are so used to it. But it no longer makes much sense in our society, and it probably is no longer what is best for children and families.
All this being said, I really do look forward to summer (yes, really). The expression goes, “The days are long, but the years are short,” and this is especially true in summer. Of course we love the warm breezes, the lake, the swimming, and the ice cream trucks. We love the outdoor festivals and carnivals and amusement parks. These places and events make up some of my best childhood and parenting memories.
I will strive to call upon these memories for strength on a random Wednesday in August when it is the middle of the day, and we cannot think of another thing to do. And I will be secretly glad when I see the advertising for back to school gear in July. It may be a ridiculous sign of the consumerism in our society, but I also believe that these ads are to provide hope for parents who are losing their minds.
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