Summer costs too much for kids who go to school

If you can afford to deal with your kids in the summer, then you can afford to homeschool. The collective vision we have for our kids in the summer is swimming and reading and exploring with sweaty faces and dirty feet. This is, of course, free. And requires only that an adult be there for a refill on lemonade or a skinned knee. 

The problem is that people are doing outrageous things with their kids in the summer. School is inherently competitive—constantly ranking kids among each other. So parents buy into the idea that the competition extends to the summer. There’s sort of a competition to see which family can do the coolest stuff.

The drivers of summer-pastime inflation are, of course, school-related.

1. Camp inflation.
It’s not enough to send your kid away from home to learn to be independent and play. The kid has to do something remarkable now, so the parents can talk about it. My friend is a camp director for a very expensive east-coast camp, and he says that the hardest thing to sell to parents (expensive camp directors make in-home recruiting visits, much like expensive colleges do)  is that a non-competitive camp is good for their kids. Parents are scared to send their kids to non-competitive camps because traditional school teaches everyone that everything worthwhile is a competition and the winners are who matters.

2. Specialization inflation.
I was sitting at dinner with a venture capitalist. He had to leave dinner early because his daughter was having a breakdown at squash camp. In the midwest, she’s a top squash player, coached by her dad. But at squash camp, she is terrible, because the kids have been playing on the national circuit since they were eight. (Not unlike the national circuit for basketball). If you want a kid to specialize, but you send the kid to be a generalist in school, then there is no time. So summer becomes a specialization pressure-cooker.

So camp was too intense for this guy’s daughter and he had to fly there for a rescue mission. Like school, camp becomes a way for parents to teach kids to focus on what parents value. And of course, that rarely works out: camps ends up being as oppressive as school.

3. Care packages inflation.
Parents suffer immense amounts of guilt for not spending enough time with their kids. This makes sense: kids want to have their parents around all day. Not to interact with constantly, but to know they are there, as a safety mechanism. Parents provide a sense of safety so kids can explore on their own. When we squelch exploration and put teachers in charge instead of parents, everyone feels bad—even the teachers, who feel, rightly, that they are treated as babysitters. To make up for the all-round bad feelings, parents send kids insanely huge care packages. Now, most camps ban care packages, and parents profess their love by doing crazy things to get around the ban, like taping candy inside a book.

You know the solution, of course: more time. More time to relax, more time to find a passion that is right for the child. More time to practice so there is downtime in between practice. More time to be with kids so you don’t have to buy stuff for kids.

But it feels like there’s never enough time. During the fall and winter, school consumes all the time,  as it sucks any confidence out of parents that they could guide their own kids. So kids and parents both feel like the summer pace would never be sustainable for more than a few months, and it will never feel sustainable as long as it’s compared with the structure that school forces on the rest of the year.

For the middle class with two working parents, summer is expensive, intense and unsustainable. Which is exactly what school officials are hoping: because then you are grateful to receive their school supply list in the fall, and you’re grateful for the first day of school as a signal that school will restore order to your family’s calendar.

15 replies
  1. sarah
    sarah says:

    Im a homeschooling mom, and one of the biggest complaints I hear from other parents is they couldnt be alone with their kids all day. They need “me ” time, which they get while kids are in school. I think that os why parents ship their kids off to camps, because they dont know how to be alone with their kids.

  2. Priscilla Wood
    Priscilla Wood says:

    That’s good. My son is in a do-nothing camp, they play video games and watch movies all day. He loves it, he doesn’t want summer to end. I also make sure I mention this to everybody, which brings dirty looks from my ex and random parents. I love getting dirty looks.

  3. Louise Taylor
    Louise Taylor says:

    My boys are extremely active in summer, and with no kids in the neighborhood to play with, I have sent them to local day camps through Parks and Rec or a nature center. I pick the ones that are as cheap and as unstructured as possible. They are hiking and playing much of the day. It’s the closest thing I can find to a 1970s style summer. So it is frustrating, even those of us who want unstructured play in the neighborhood, have trouble implementing that because the other kids in the neighborhood are not playing outside all day, are not available much, and this generation of kids did not grow up playing outside for hours on end with neighborhood kids.

    Now my oldest wants to go to soccer camp at universities. To which I say, “Save your money, dear!”

  4. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    We’re a two-working parent family and our kid goes to DAY camp where she does tae kwon do for an hour, then has the rest of the day to play with her friends, also quiet time on her own, and field trips to the local pool, bowling, playgrounds, museums. And it’s affordable. She’s only there about 8.5 hours a day, and at school-age (ie, not a preschooler, toddler or baby) I feel it this is age-appropriate. We also have four weeks of down time (between us adults) for her over the summer to vacation with us and just hang out at home/go on outing with us, so she gets the taste of the lazy days, too. We can’t be the only family in America with this situation. You may be overstating things.

  5. Liz
    Liz says:

    I worked at a summer day camp for mostly low-income kids last summer and they tried to make day camp like an extension of school so that poor kids won’t fall behind through “summer learning loss”! It was awful because they put us in a crowded noisy room with dozens of kids and expected us to do math and literacy “activities” that the kids didn’t understand the point of or didn’t want to do. Plus they gave us minimal supplies and no planning time. Our best days were when we went to the park and let the kids play outside all day (against orders). It was the least stressful for us and most fun for them.

    If they want the kids to learn, they should let them have supplies and time to experiment with without us dictating the result. And give us time to sit and read with a few kids at a time so they can have the book in front of them and talk to us about the story. Group story time with 25 kids is fine for a short time if everyone wants to listen, but one on one co-reading has way more impact for little kids.

    I went to day camps every summer as a kid because my mom worked and I mostly hated that I couldn’t just sit and read or write all day, but instead I had to “do activities” most of which were physical group games that I didn’t want to do.

    • sheela
      sheela says:

      Yes. I feel guilty because I am a grant writer and wrote the grant that got my local school district one such summer program designed for low income kids to prevent learning loss. One day in July I visited 4 local camps; a science camp, sports camp, arts camp and the school summer program. (I started a fund to sponsor low income kids in summer camps of their choice.) The kids at the three regular camps were all thoroughly engaged in whatever activity I happened in on; learning to sail, playing basketball, doing an experiment with sand, painting elaborate designs, creating pottery to be sold…..except for the poor souls in the school program. It might as well have been a Tuesday in February. They were sitting quietly in their seats and listening to the teacher with pained expressions on their faces.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I’m always amazed at how many new perspectives I find when I read the comments.

        The idea that summer programs are a litmus test for engagement at school is so incredible. It’s well known that low-income kids have regression during the summer break and high-income kids don’t. But what we don’t talk about is that the high-income kids are going to school to stop regression. They are going to engaging, non-school activities.

        It’s so obvious, then, that non-school activities stimulate intellectual growth in a way that we think only school can. But no one takes the time to draw this conclusion. People only draw the conclusion that poor kids need more school.


        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          That’s a good insight.

          It’s similar to the conclusions drawn about how to “close the gap” between poor kids and high-income kids: make poor kids’ schools more like cram schools and jails. Uniforms, marching in lockstep, non-stop teaching the test.

          Is that what made high-income kids get better test scores? No.

          Another way to look at the problem is with a sort of general-purpose scale of “enrichment.” When the poor kids go home, that environment is less enriching than school. When the high-income kids go home or on their summer vacations, that environment is more enriching than school. The difference isn’t Kumon or school summer programs. The difference is something entirely outside the ability of the school to fix. One might as well call it culture.

        • Mark Hill
          Mark Hill says:

          Penelope’s final point is key. The evidence appears to show that during summer holidays, the average reading level of upper class kids is improving at least as fast as when they are at school.

          There are huge implications to this.
          * Not schooling some children appears to be at least as successful than schooling them.
          * That some children learn faster by playing.
          * That summer camps / idleness / being with parents / being with friends help some children learn at least as fast as teaching them.

          The research and investment ought to be following and ideally replicating, what is clearly working… the progress of upper class children in the summer holidays. That’s a message for political leaders.

          There are also strong messages for we home educators. Perhaps contact with parents is the main criterion of success. Perhaps we should be focusing on encouraging our kids to educate themselves rather than home schooling them. Perhaps autonomy is what children most need to learn well.

          The data behind this issue is covered in ‘Outliers’ chapter nine, Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin 2008, but I would be delighted to read something more up-to-date.

  6. Betsy
    Betsy says:

    Such a great article. Really well written. Penelope you beautifully articulate the homeschooling lifestyle. So encouraging to read this. Thanks.

  7. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    It’s true about the competition thing. My 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son are in Dutch school in the Netherlands, and as soon as summer started, my daughter told me that all her friends are going on vacations all over the world, and where are WE going on vacation, Mom? Because she wants to have a great story to tell the other kids when school starts again.

  8. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    It was really funny, growing up to watch my parents deal with any time that had to spend with me that was more than a few hours.

    When I was first sent to summer camp, I remember feeling, “wait, so I don’t see you guys when I’m in school, now I don’t see you when I am out?” The concept was so strange to me.

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