Who Moved My Ease?

A brief history of summer vacation and how adults are pushing their children to be as overworked as they are.

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.

Building a busy summer schedule

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.

Shifting approaches to summer

We’ve 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?

Shifting approaches to work

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?

Skill building in summer

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.


Lost time in the great outdoors

While computers and the Internet can expose kids to lots of things, fresh air isn’t one of them. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an American child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike. That’s bad news to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. “In the past, summer was when we got our biggest nature fix,” he says.

Today, Louv believes that parents’ misplaced fear of strangers, combined with our culture’s tendency to undervalue unstructured free time, has shrunk the perimeters of our children’s lives. We’re more comfortable allowing our kids to crawl through a germy plastic tunnel at McDonald’s Playland than to wander the woods—simply because we can supervise them.

In such cases, Louv says, kids miss out on nature’s primary benefits: stress reduction, a connection to other living things, and the freedom to think creatively without distractions. “Without nature, children lose much of the experience of inventing their own games and finding their own way out of boredom without electronics,” says Louv. “I think they become dependent on other people planning their time.”

All this thinking about summer made me wonder if I wasn’t romanticizing my memories of those sun-drenched days at Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. So I called my mother to get her take. “By August, you were pretty squirrelly,” she said. She reminded me that after the first grade, I attended a day camp for at least a week every year. We also spent several weeks traveling. In other words, that endless summer I moon over probably lasted about a month.

Having corrected such misperceptions about my own summers, I decided to look into the history of American summers to find out if, as a culture, we’re guilty of similarly warped nostalgia. What I learned surprised me: for all but the very wealthy, summer was never about leisure.

A history summer struggles

For rural folks, summer was the hardest part of the year. According to University of Minnesota agronomy professor Vernon Cardwell, as far back as the early 1800s in America, the summer break from school was put into place so children could help out on family farms. As anyone who has grown up on a farm will tell you, the work is anything but easy, especially in Minnesota where the short growing season means that soil preparation, planting, pest management, and harvesting have to be squeezed into a spurt of days that doesn’t end until the snow flies.

For urbanites, summer was no picnic either. The heat of summer turned big cities into breeding grounds of cholera, yellow fever, and malaria. New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and others who could afford it headed either to the ocean or to a cooler climate—including Minnesota. “Because of the clean air and all the lakes, the Minnesota Territory held an enchantment for early tourists,” says Kathryn Strand Koutsky, coauthor with her daughter Linda Koutsky of Minnesota Vacation Days: An Illustrated History.

As early as the 1820s, steamboats brought Southerners up the Mississippi River. Stagecoaches carried Easterners eager to escape the dirt and disease of industrialized cities. During the second half of the 19th century, Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet, and Como Lake were popular for weeklong vacations in lakeside hotels and camping grounds. The city lakes were chaotic enough by the 1880s that folks in search of real relaxation used the newly completed train lines to head out to White Bear Lake and Lake Minnetonka. During that era, Lake Minnetonka’s three largest hotels registered more than 10,000 guests from all over the world. Railroad baron James J. Hill’s Lafayette Hotel on Lake Minnetonka was one of the largest and most luxurious resorts west of the Mississippi.

But even though the sepia photographs of people splashing around White Bear Lake in bathing costumes would seem to be proof that summer is, at its root, the time of good living, history reveals a more complicated scenario. Summer vacations as we think of them today—as a break from jobs—resulted from the rise of the middle class in American cities in the 1850s. But even then, people felt conflicted about leaving work and wallowing in unstructured time.

“Being part of the middle class in the 19th century meant subscribing to certain values: hard work, frugality, discipline, self-control, sobriety,” explains Cindy S. Aron, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of Working At Play: A History of Vacations in the United States. “Those were the things that allowed the middle class to accumulate their resources to be able to go on vacations. And then going on vacations challenged the values that allowed them to go on a vacation in the first place.” In other words, if you spent the majority of the year working hard and saving, it was extremely difficult to let go of those habits for a few days.

That’s why, according to Aron, many of those vacation pioneers wanted their summer respites to be productive. In Minnesota and elsewhere, Protestant (primarily Methodist) organizations set up church camps as alternatives to the resorts frequented by the upper class, where alcohol was served and dancing was allowed. Chautauquas—multi-day events where thousands of vacationers gathered to hear cultural lectures and take part in discussions on the social and political issues of the day—provided another opportunity to justify being away from the job.

The idea of summer as a kid’s holiday, however, didn’t take hold until around 1920, according to Mintz. By then, sleepaway camps, including Minnesota classics such as Camp Lake Hubert and Camp Lincoln in the Brainerd Lakes area, were gaining in popularity. Sending the kids away for a while wasn’t cheap (and still isn’t—a month at Camp Lake Hubert now costs $3,375), but in the early 20th century, many people firmly believed that sleepaway camps had tremendous benefits. “People understood that an overly intense parent-child bond was not good all the time for either parent or child,” Mintz explains.

Putting personal problems in perspective

The voices of Doherty, Mintz, and Louv were foremost in my mind when Walter and I sat down this past spring to figure out how to plan a summer that’s fun and gives everyone some stretches of downtime, while still allowing me to work. We have embraced junior swim team, and signed up for tennis lessons, as well as a few camps. We’ll take a long family vacation in August. There are enough unstructured days, too, to ensure that our babysitter and I will probably greet the beginning of the coming school year with a sigh of relief.

My family is incredibly fortunate. Not only can we afford to enroll our children in summer activities, but I have the flexibility to work in spurts and at odd hours, so I can spend days watching Peter as he learns the butterfly or eating peanut-butter sandwiches with Luisa and Henrick in our backyard. To many families, my complaints are luxuries.

“Summer is a challenge because it’s a time when the achievement gap widens again,” says Dale Blyth, chief of staff for the Minnesota Commission on Out-of-School Time, a task force of University of Minnesota researchers and community leaders that was created to ensure that all Minnesota children have access to development-enhancing activities. “Many of these children are often underengaged and are staying inside watching TV.” As a result of the commission’s findings, the U has launched the Applied Research Collaborative, which will be looking at many of the issues relating to the quality, access, and availability of out-of-school activities for students across Minnesota.

I hope the collaborative achieves its goal. Since we live in a climate that doesn’t exactly make it easy to be outside for a good chunk of the year, I believe that summer offers us all some measure of freedom that’s worth preserving. No one’s life should be entirely hemmed in by the right angles and artificial light of indoor spaces. That’s why I’ll fight for June, July, and August—mosquitoes and all.

Elizabeth Larsen is a Twin Cities–based writer who is planning a three-week vacation to Austria this summer.

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