How to Make Summer Better for Everyone

Trying to escape the summer camp rat race.

How to Make Summer Better for Everyone
Photo by Vitolda Klein / Unsplash

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Ah yes, it’s January! And yes, here in 2024, we live in an individualized hellscape that treats childcare in the summer as an “every family for themselves” logistical and financial gauntlet that kicks off in January!

Last week’s newsletter revised some of the history behind why we treat childcare as a private, family matter, instead of an issue of public concern. So, for part two of this series, I want to get practical about addressing some of the serious shortcomings of how America does summer, which is deeply difficult for employed parents.

Dedicated readers of this newsletter know I do not love to promote micro solutions as a panacea for widespread social failure. The actual answer to the question of “what should we do with children in the summer?” is a series of public policies that exist in other countries, including shorter summer breaks, mandated paid vacation time for all workers of six weeks or more, heavily subsidized activities and camps for younger children, and urban planning choices paired with different community norms that make it easier and safer for older children to do things in public independently, like go to parks, shops and pools on foot or public transport. So, let’s be clear, that’s what we need and deserve.

But since that’s all not happening between now and the end of this school year, we DO have to confront the reality of America’s summer problems. The 2024 status quo involves expensive, hard-to-get private summer camp options that don’t match the work day or sometimes even the full summer break, and a country where no one has enough vacation time to take off from work during all of kids’ summer breaks. Ugh! So given the cards we’ve been dealt, I have six points I hope can help reframe the summer camp frenzy and maybe give you some ideas for solutions you haven’t thought of.

Nothing like signing up for summer camp while your kids are dressed like this.

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  1. You are not alone. Part of what I hate about summer is how we deal with it feels so isolated. It’s very easy to feel like everyone else is more organized than you, has no financial concerns about the high cost of camp, or has no problem making the weird schedules and logistics work. It certainly doesn’t help that some camps feel like a Hunger Games race to sign up, where you compete with parents in your community, rather than act in solidarity about how ridiculous this system is. From the outside, it may seem like no one else has kids who complain about what their parents choose for them to do, or no one else misses the signup or botches summer dates. Maybe it seems like other people’s kids can happily entertain themselves while their parents work, while barely looking at a screen. I assure you, whatever you feel like you are facing about that is hard about summer, you are not alone. The only way to connect with people around this is to be vulnerable and start talking about it. So, consider this an invitation to text a friend, post in a Facebook group, or vent to your sister about these intractable summer problems.
  2. Cost does not equal quality. When so much of summer is about a private camp marketplace, it’s easy to think that the most expensive option must be “the best.” I’ll never forget spending a huge amount of money on tickets and parking (over $100 total)  to take my oldest as a toddler to the Boston Aquarium. I was sure he would be dazzled by the penguins and the world-class exhibits. Of course, he wanted to spend the visit going up and down the concrete fire escape stairs. There is a camp version of this lesson. Expensive and dazzling with slick marketing may be in no way better for your kid than the community center camp they liked the year before. It is also OK for your kids to go to “Camp Grandma” where they watch too much YouTube. It really is OK. 
  3. Don’t Dismiss Rec Center or Publicly Subsidized Options. In my community of Durham, NC, there is some limited access to much more affordable camp options (half the cost of private camps) with better hours, through the public school system and the parks and rec department. At least in my area, the signup dates are much later than private camp signups, which I think makes some people overlook them or can make families nervous about waiting to get their summer nailed down. By all accounts, these are great programs, and I’m going to consider them once all three of my kids are old enough for full-time camp. 
  4. It’s OK to say no. Camp and summer planning can sometimes feel like keeping up with Joneses. Once your kids are old enough to have camp preferences, you should not feel guilty about telling them that a camp is too expensive or too inconvenient to work out. My 8-year-old was asking to go to a Chess Camp with hours of 9 to 4, 30 minutes away. While I love that he loves chess, two hours total driving is a non-starter for us, even if he has friends who have parents who can make this work. I told him that it wasn’t going to work for our family and let him know about some of the other fun things we had planned for the summer. 
  5. Bring your community into solutions. Beyond some of the reframes I’ve suggested, I would love to see more collaboration outside of nuclear families about making summer not so expensive and challenging. The first way to do this is to take stock of your community and think about people who might have similar needs to you or have complementary situations. Do you have a friend who’s a teacher who you could swap her taking your kid on outings during some summer weeks in exchange for you giving her some date night babysitting during the school year? Can you pow-wow with some friends and agree to keep your kids out of camp for some of the same weeks so they all have friends to play with? Can two teen cousins watch a group of their younger cousins at someone’s house that has a great backyard? In some ways, none of these ideas are as simple as filling out a camp form and entering a credit card number. They require trust, communication, and time. But I do think they could be pressure valves to ease some of the summer burdens while making investments in creating stronger community relationships. 
  6. Think way outside the box. A lot of the discussion around summer feels resigned and lacks creativity. I get it. If you can afford it, it’s easy to feel sucked into the summer camp rat race. That’s why I would love to highlight bold ideas of how people are getting away from this model. While offbeat ideas aren’t necessarily widely replicable, I want more stories about monthlong campsite trips with groups of friends where parents rotate working remotely. Have you found a community pool that lets kids who are strong swimmers visit by themselves? Do you visit or live in a community where in the summer, kids are allowed to roam around in packs and seem to entertain each other without structured camp? Are there still spots in the US like the Catskills resorts of Dirty Dancing that are full of activities and group meals, but aren’t wildly expensive? I blissfully fantasize about visiting The Field School of Hvar on the Croatian coast, (started by a Double Shift reader!) which is reimagining travel, camp, and vacation by creating community and co-working for parents for a month while taking kids on cool adventures during the day. 

If you have or have tried outside-the-box ideas for summer, I’d love to hear about them. Email me at I’d also love to hear about creative ways of addressing summer in a community context, here or abroad.

For this week’s members-only thread, I’d love to know, how did YOU spend your summers growing up? A lot has changed since we were kids, and I’d love to share some memories and get our creative juices flowing. To get this conversation, become a member. It supports my work at starts at $7/mo.


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