River Dad, What Happened To Summer?

Not to sound like a grumpy octogenarian shaking his fist at those dang kids from the safety of his front stoop, but back in my day summer meant something.

It meant freedom.

imagesNo school. Endless play. Getting up whenever you wanted without a single idea or care as to what the day held in store. Spending hours on end in the tree fort pretending to be Indiana Jones. Taking the Star Wars figures into the backyard and seeing which ones the dog would behead and devour.

One thing summer wasn’t — stressful for my parents. So long as I didn’t light something on fire or end up in the hospital, they happily turned a blind eye to my summertime escapades. I’d always assumed that I’d enjoy a similar experience once I became parent myself. Summer arrives, kids disappear from about nine in the morning ’til around five in the evening; they return enriched with life experience and a couple of splinters; I get a gold star for parenting.

Unfortunately, reality is raining on my rose-colored parade. It started back in February when my wife interrupted a very intense game of Facebook Scrabble.

“We need to think about what to do with the kids over the summer.” The initial ideas that popped into my head (slave labor, cryogenic freezing, ship them to a relative for three months) being unrealistic, I answered in my usual honest and thoughtful way. “What do you mean? It’s summer. They’ll play. If they get hot, we’ve got a kiddie pool.”

My wife quickly informed me that there were these things called summer camps and, unless I wanted to spend the next three months playing dress-up with my daughter and scrambling up the hillside after my son, we might want to look into enrolling them in one.

At first, this seemed easy. Find out what camp was nearby, sign the kids up, get some free time to go see all the summer blockbusters. I hemmed and hawed, took my time, assured my wife I was on top of it, and procrastinated. Yeah,yeah. I’ll sign them up. What’s the big deal?

It turns out there are, like, 17,000 different summer camps available in the Rivertowns alone. Some cost an arm and a leg, some just a leg. Some go for three weeks, some for one week, some on alternate Tuesdays and Fridays. Some are in the morning, some in the afternoon, some in the middle of the night for the County’s child insomniacs. (OK, maybe not, but there should be.) There are tot camps, little kid camps, big kid camps, sports camps, nature camps, art camps, farm camps, drama camps, leadership camps, cooking camps, rock star camps, math camps, circus camps, the list goes on. I kept looking for the “Camp That Helps You Decide Which Camp To Send Your Kid To” camp, but no such luck.

By March, it was the only thing other parents asked me. “What camp is your child going to this summer?” became the spring’s drop-off conversation starter. The complexity of a child’s summer schedule became a status symbol.

“We found a soccer camp for Enrique, because he loves to run. That’s in the mornings in June, which leaves him open for an afternoon Wind Instrument camp — he’s studying the flute — which runs for three weeks Wednesday through Friday. After that, he’ll enter an immersive Arabic Language camp for a week until the soccer runs out and he’s free to attend the all-day Vulcanology camp — we’re so lucky he got in — which goes until the end of July. Then in August, he’s alternating a Kick Boxing camp with an Introduction to City Planning camp every other week.”

“Isn’t Enrique three?”

“In October. Oh, and we’re still waiting to hear if he got into the Polo camp; they’re very exclusive but we have high hopes because he looks so cute on a pony.”

The pressure is intense. What if we send them to the wrong camp? Will my three year-old son really get his (and our) money’s worth from six weeks of Lacrosse camp? Wouldn’t an all-day Running Around in Circles camp be more appropriate? Not to mention cheaper. I could host that camp in my backyard and charge a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade for tuition.

I know it’s just summer camp, but in the back of my mind lurks the fear that the wrong camp experience at age four will lead to a lifetime of bad decisions culminating in 15-to-life at Sing Sing for drug trafficking. Can I prevent this by just having him hang around in our backyard all summer?

Am I over-reacting? Suffering from self-induced Summer Camp Blues? My main complaint is that we’re being forced to over-schedule our children in what should be, as memory serves, the most relaxed, stress-free time of the year. Shuttling my kids back and forth from camp to camp doesn’t sound very relaxing to me. But, of course, to them it’s not mindless chauffeuring back and forth, it’s getting a ride to camp and then playing with friends for a few, concentrated hours and getting jacked up on bug juice. Going on adventures, making lanyards, playing games. From that perspective, camp sounds like… well… fun. So maybe what I’m really upset about is not that society has ruined summer for our children, but rather the cruel march of time has ruined summer for me. I still have this idyllic vision of peaceful summer months spent in perfect, innocent joy. A vision which, let’s face it, probably stems from my imagination more than reality and too many readings of Huck Finn.

So fine, we’re sending our kids to summer camp. Hopefully they’ll have fun, learn some cool things, and make friends. And hopefully thirty years from now, when they’re figuring out what to do with their kids (our grandkids) during the summer, they’ll remember their relaxing, social, active summers at camp as fondly as I remember my no-camp summers as a child.

And I’ll still get my gold star for parenting.

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About the Author: David Neilsen