Who Moved My Ease?
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The first hint that my summer was not going to unfold with the lazy, humidity-soaked languor of a Tennessee Williams play occurred last March, when my husband, Walter, and our 6-year-old son, Peter, returned home from a summer swim-team sign-up. Other moms had told me the group was easygoing and noncompetitive, an opportunity for kids to learn sportsmanship and to have some good old-fashioned fun. I figured it was a perfect fit for Peter, who prefers the backstroke and crawl to corner kicks and slap shots. He couldn’t wait to show me his new knee-length Speedo and to inform me that he’d been placed on the “junior” swim team, unable to make the top team because he couldn’t swim all four competitive strokes. “I don’t know butterfly yet,” Peter explained, oblivious to the fact that I might view his assignment to the B team as anything less than reasonable.
As a self-employed mother with three young children, I should have been thrilled that Peter had qualified for a team that met only twice—instead of five times—a week. Instead, I was disappointed. And concerned. Had I failed as a parent by not making sure that my kindergartner learned a stroke that I, despite that Junior Lifesaving card, had never mastered? As I contemplated fixing the problem by signing Peter up for private lessons, it struck me that I’d been sucked in by the Great American Childhood Speed-Up that accompanies summer. And not for the first time.
Last July, as my car idled in rush-hour traffic and Peter complained from the back seat about how much he hated the day camps I was ferrying him to and from, I vowed I’d do things differently next time. I’d developed a rotating roster of activities for my children—an idea that seemed logical enough when I’d conceived it. I was returning to work after four months off, following the adoption of our daughter, Luisa. Juggling three children at different developmental stages—Henrik, our middle child, had just turned 3; Luisa was 10 months—would be no small feat for our babysitter. My plan was to keep the little ones at home, send Peter to camps, and schedule my job so that the sitter and I could join forces when all three children were at home.
Peter wasn’t happy about the solution. Not because the camps weren’t a lot of fun. He enjoyed them (aside from an architecture class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which from a parent’s perspective was marvelous—well-integrated curriculum, art projects light years beyond the egg-carton contraptions we taped together at home—yet was assessed by Peter as “the worst thing ever”). But shifting routines every week or two wiped him out—and me, too.
Summer in Minnesota—a three-month stretch of picnics and fishing and after-dinner swims—was passing us by. My children would probably never know the kind of casual mornings filled with spontaneous recreation that my three younger sisters and I had enjoyed growing up in Minneapolis. Not just because my husband and I both work, but also because the very nature of childhood in America has changed. Many of the parents I know (those who work outside the home and those who don’t) complain that summers have gotten crazy. But we’ve also grown allergic to the idea of letting our children while away the days. Unstructured activity makes us anxious. Our children are expected to excel at everything they attempt (all four competitive strokes!), and summer has become a prime opportunity to perfect their skills in stick-handling, Spanish, subtraction, and sailing.
What all these summer activities have in common is that adults stage-manage the action. In this respect, they barely resemble the summers of my memory, which were glorious parent-free zones of neighborhood kick-the-can games that stretched past dusk and of solo bike expeditions around Lake of the Isles. For me, a kid who got in trouble a lot at school, summer was a break from other people’s expectations and from the painful reminders that I wasn’t measuring up. I didn’t have to layer my body with sweaters and parkas to protect it against the cold or play in the dark after I came home from school. (More than 30 years later, I still prefer the wilting heat of early August to those blink-and-miss-them December afternoons.) Summer was a time when I could relax and be myself. Was it the same for my children? When had the kind of summers I knew as a youth vanished?
TO FIGURE OUT what happened to summer, it helps to understand how the habits of U.S. workers have changed. We’re not only putting in longer hours and working more weekends than ever before, we’re also taking less time off. The vacations of U.S. workers are the shortest of any in the industrialized world—just 8.1 days after one year on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2005 study by the New York–based Families and Work Institute found that 36 percent of the employees surveyed were not planning to take full advantage of their annual vacation benefits and that 37 percent of respondents took fewer than seven days of vacation each year. A generation ago, Minnesotans got through winter with the promise of a relaxing summer vacation. Today, that week or two at a north woods resort has been compressed into a three-day weekend. And unless you’ve paddled deep into the Boundary Waters, chances are you’re still reachable by cell phone or Internet. You can leave the office, but in a world of 24/7 connections, can you really leave work?
Our own preference for work over vacation has insidiously shaped how we think about our children’s summers. “Summer should be a break from the intensity of the school year and a chance for enjoyment, downtime, family time, and some organized, enjoyable activities,” says William J. Doherty, University of Minnesota professor of family social science and author of Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times. “A generation ago you would have gone to a summer camp for fun. Now many parents choose their summer camps and programs as another way for their children to stay on the treadmill of honing skills and learning new skills.” Indeed, last March, when I was sorting through the camp and summer-school brochures, I was surprised to see that, along with the horseback riding/lanyard making/archery brand of camp, there were also camps promising to teach kids study strategies, entrepreneurship, and stock-picking skills—some of them aimed at kids as young as fourth grade. The description for “Organizational Skills and Time Management” prodded students to enroll with this enticement/warning: “Your teachers need them. Your parents need them. YOU need them, and the time to learn and begin using them is NOW.”
How did we start saying no to cookouts and sing-alongs and yes to Mandarin classes and computer camps? “Every parent realizes that education is more important economically than it was in the past, and there is a growing sense of competition,” explains Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Houston and the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. “We believe parents must give our kids a head start if they are going to be competitive.” Doherty agrees with Mintz, and warns that this kind of mindset can have serious consequences. “The biggest training we are doing with our children is training them to be workaholics,” he says. To make his point, Doherty describes an interaction between a father and his son leaving a day camp at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. “The kid had been out in the sun and was dragging a little bit, so he was walking a little more slowly behind his father,” he remembers. “And his father said, ‘Hurry up, you have to eat in the car so we can get to soccer practice.’ The message was hurry up at the end of your physically tiring day, and then eat in the car so that you can get to your serious soccer practice. That cannot be good.”
Such over-scheduling worries childhood experts. “There is no question that kids today have less free time than they used to have, and this is particularly evident in summer,” says Mintz. “Kids are much more likely to be in structured, adult-supervised activities on the one hand—or to be involved in forms of entertainment and information that are electronically mediated.” Translation: video games and chat rooms.