What the Summer Camp Frenzy Costs Us

In addition to the expense of 10 weeks of supervised childcare, our society has closed off "stepping stones" of responsibility needed for kids to grow up.

What the Summer Camp Frenzy Costs Us
Photo by Anna Samoylova / Unsplash

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As summer sinks its humid teeth into us, I’m glad to see the systemic failures of ten weeks of "every family for themselves" to figure out childcare is getting more attention. Back in January, as I was getting my camp signup spreadsheet together, I wrote about the little known history of why summer care is so difficult. It turns out one reason is that we are still paying the price for Richard Nixon wanting to look tough on communists back in 1972! Other great resources on summer camp woes include Lydia Kiesling’s recent piece in Bloomberg that gets into general camp scarcity and the rise of specialty camps as part of concerted cultivation parenting styles. My colleague Rebecca Gale also wrote this year about how summer camp is even more of a nightmare for families where kids have disabilities or need more individualized attention. Also, if you haven’t read it, definitely check out Anne Helen Petersen’s expansive interview with sociologist Jess Calarco, about the economic forces that make camp expensive, how some mother’s career choices are shaped by this summer care gap, and why this unworkable system remains intact.

It’s also important to point out that a wide swath of America cannot afford to participate in this camp frenzy. The Better Life Lab at New America’s report on the summer care gap found 46% of parents say summer care is somewhat or very hard to afford. Relatedly, the same study found that 77% of respondents said that their kids were primarily being cared for by a parent, a relative or were home alone. 20% of parents are spending $3,000 or more on summer care, which highlights how economic inequality influences how kids are spending their summers.

There are a couple things on my mind about the status quo of summer in America that’s not covered in these pieces that I want to add to this robust discussion. While I’m still in the intensive supervision mode for summer with my toddler twins, I’m starting to get some new perspective with my middle elementary schooler. So let me offer some additional insight into summer’s pitfalls and potential solutions.

First, the pitfalls:

  1. We’ve taken away responsibility stepping stones: It’s easy to wax poetic about how much simpler and less expensive summers were just a generation ago when Millennials were kids. This reduced pressure on parents had the benefit of allowing kids to have increased autonomy as they grew up. An example: I recall my brother’s best friend Patrick spending large chunks of his summer at his neighborhood community pool across the street from his house. Both of his parents worked full time, and after passing a swim test he was allowed to hang out there all day without an adult, starting at age 7. He was signed up for the swim team but did not need to be formally enrolled in 10 weeks of summer camp. Everyone at the pool knew Patrick, and he got plenty of practice doing things on his own like ordering nachos from the snack bar, crossing the street to go back to his house, and hanging out with friends while life guards made sure he didn’t drown but did not provide him with structured activities. I asked Patrick, who is now 37 and has young kids himself, if he’d be comfortable with them doing the same thing at age 7. “In the same type of situation/set up, yes for sure,” he said. But the reality is that the setup Patrick experienced isn’t likely to be available to parents, even if they want it. My older son is about to turn 8, and I asked at our JCC community pool how old kids who’ve passed the swim test have to be to be left alone there. The answer? 14. Old enough to legally work. I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons for this rule and perhaps some well-behaved kids under 14 are there under the radar, but this feels like an illustrative example of the lack of access to increasing levels of independence that summers once provided. Also, it seems illogical to me that kids can go from being fully supervised all the time to magically fully knowing how to behave unsupervised at the change of one birthday. Perhaps these lack of stepping stones is one reason teenagers have fewer summer jobs than ever, from more than 50% in the 90s to around 35% now.
  2. We’ve closed off spaces to children: Beyond the pool example, there’s also a general lack of public and private spaces for kids to go to independently. Many cities and suburbs in the US lack walkability and robust public transportation options for kids to go anywhere interesting. Extreme heat and other conditions like poor air quality from wildfires make it unsafe to frolic outside in nature all day in many parts of the country. There are also increasing restrictions on allowing teenagers to go to malls, theme parks and even fast food restaurants without adult chaperones, with businesses citing unruly and sometimes violent behavior as the reason for the crackdowns. Certainly this isn’t the only factor, but again thinking about my previous stepping stone point, when exactly were they supposed to learn how to behave alone in public?
  3. When screens aren’t a safe babysitter: For kids who are mature enough to be left in the summer without adult supervision, the lack of stepping stones and closed off spaces means if they are not in a formal camp program, they are probably at home on some kind of device. Plenty of Millennials spent their summers binging TV, but for many there was a natural saturation point as a show came on you didn’t like or you got tired of reruns. Obviously that’s not the case anymore. As parents become increasingly aware of the addictive qualities of screens and the mental health implications of social media, being alone at home all day with a tablet or phone may feel like its own different kind of danger.
  4. Summer Herd Mentality: Like so many things in parenthood, it’s hard to zag if everyone in your community is zigging. And if you are in a social group were everyone sends kids to day camps or goes out of town and you can’t afford or don’t want to do this, you may find that your kids don’t have any friends to hang out with, further perpetuating all of the previously listed problems and making camps more compelling.

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So what should we do about this? First off, Jess Calarco’s answer to Anne Helen Petersen about not what we should do to fix this but WHY it hasn’t been fixed yet is right on the money. Who’s benefiting from the status quo? As usual, it’s capitalism, baby! Companies benefit from the extra hours of work from not offering 6+ weeks of vacation that would help fill these gaps, and high-end specialty camps are able to run successful businesses and have no interest in seeing universally available, free or cheaper camp options take over.

Ok, so now some thoughts on solutions:

Is there any way out of the summer camp rat race? First, I’d recommend advocating for expanded summer camp access at lower cost in your community, even if your kids won’t directly benefit from it. You can do this by talking to local YMCAs, parks and rec centers, and public school districts about what it might take to do this. I’ll be honest with you, there probably won’t be a magic bullet fix that’s a few phone calls and a fundraiser away, but people willing to stick with this issue for years could make a difference.

Second, I’d recommend what I always recommend when systems are failing: community building. Many lower income families who can’t afford paid summer care are already well-practiced at this, it’s middle class to wealthier families who may need instruction on how to do it. Your bed is probably already made for this summer, so before the camp sign up frenzy begins in winter, make this less of a private family problem and start brainstorming together. Can you talk to friends about some less expensive, less intensive solutions, especially for upper elementary kids and older? Like for example, one parent who’s a teacher chaperoning pool trips for a week in exchange for taking the teacher’s kid camping along with you the next? Can a grandma who watches her own grandkids do a cooking or knitting club for a few neighborhood friends?

Create your own independence challenges: I’m already giving this more thought about how I want to do this for my kids, even if our society basically doesn’t support this and can even criminalize parents for letting your kids do things alone. Our oldest was I think the only second grader who walked to school by himself in the morning (we live across the street) and I’m already thinking about other independent treks he can do in the neighborhood, when he turns 8, the age North Carolina says kids can be left alone. (Every state is different; you can check your state here. Note: some have no official rules, and many states just have suggestions.) Even if your kids aren’t ready to be left home alone, start thinking about those stepping stones, like doing chores around the house, ordering their own food at a restaurant, or paying for something at a cash register while you are close by.

As kids get older, I personally think learning how to travel alone on a city bus or babysitting neighborhood kids is probably a far more valuable life skill than what you’d get out of a week of expensive robotics camp. I recognize that even thinking this way is a form of privilege. For many families of color, the specter of the police being called on them wouldn’t be worth letting their kids be independent beyond community norms. Normalizing more independence for all children is something our whole society needs to prioritize rather than criminalize. And maybe, with some baby steps, we can start to reclaim public space as appropriate for children to learn how to be adults, while also easing some of the high demand for summer camps.

For this week’s members-only thread, I’d love to hear, how do you think about kid independence in our supervision-heavy culture? If you want access to our weekly member threads, click the button below and to sign up and become a member!


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