Preparing for Summer Vacation is Worse Than Back-to-School

Back-to-summer season is hell on parents, but it wasn't always that way. Whatever happened to letting kids get bored and make mistakes?

There are four more Fridays until summer vacation. For my two children, these days will drag on and on. Time will slow with the thickness of anticipation. For my wife and I, however, the coming weeks will pass in a blink. They will be filled with panicked sign-ups (Bible school! Day camp! Swim lesson!?), time-off requests, and ill-considered water toy purchases. We will exhaust ourselves attempting to prepare for summer, fail, and stumble into three months of chaos. It will, for lack of a better word, suck.

Unlike the back to school blitz, which gets all the ink on account of Staples needing to move product, the back to summer push is defined more by emotional turmoil than financial distress — unless you’re paying for an expensive camp. It doesn’t help that the transition into summer is often treated as a transition towards relaxation by people who either don’t have kids or seem to have forgotten about them. In popular summer fiction, summer is a sun-dappled idyll filled with tree forts, bike paths, and minor scrapes. In popular summer reality, the season is defined by a pressure to entertain.

Parents are now forced to figure out involved itineraries packed with educational or spiritually edifying tasks. Kids must do STEM work or learn skills or meditate or whatever. We are no longer comfortable with them being bored or alone or bored and alone. We’re no longer comfortable putting the burden on them to entertain themselves. And, yes, that’s on us. But, also yes, that’s a hard thing to do when the neighbors’ kid is spending her time building robots and starting down a path that winds toward Cal Tech. I am afraid of that kid.

As summer looms, it’s useful to interrogate the nature of that fear. Am I afraid that she’ll be better than my boys? Yes, but that’s not the thing that eats at me. The thing that eats at me is that I’m afraid it will be my fault. In order to avoid that eventuality, I’m willing to rob my boys of the chance to just mess around.

I also don’t know if there is really an opportunity for parents to go back to an unstructured summer. Letting kids find their own way in the summer requires that parents trust their children and their communities. Giving kids time to explore requires that parents turn down the terror of their kid being abducted, or being reported to the cops by a worried busybody. But I think, as a society, we’re too far gone.

Which brings us back to the whole back-to-summer situation. It feels no-win to me. It feels like I’ve been set up for failure. So, what am I going to do? Panic. Run around. Sign my kids up to learn things they don’t want to know. Fight with my wife about money. Handle it poorly, I guess you could say.

Could I just let it go? Yeah, I could, but I’m not that big a man and I’m far too risk-averse. It’s not going to happen this year. There are four more Fridays to summer. And when the first Monday in summer rolls around, our children will damn well have something to do.