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In an endless summer, parents and kids are at breaking point

Sarah Caden

After almost four months at home, families still face many empty weeks ahead - and it's doing nobody any good, writes Sarah Caden


Summer camps: They’ve saved our sanity more than once

Summer camps: They’ve saved our sanity more than once

Summer camps: They’ve saved our sanity more than once

Almost a year ago to the day, I wrote in this newspaper about summer camps, parental guilt and the balance between keeping employers and children happy through the long school holidays.

I read it again last week and ended up laughing and crying - an emotional state which is something like the norm now, nearly four months since school ended.

Summer - as I saw it last year, with nine weeks of school holidays stretched in front of us - required mammoth planning if one was a working parent. Back in that old life, research and summer camp registrations started as early as May - if one was going to tick all the boxes of proximity to work and home, hours that were neither too short (for the working parent) or too long (for the child) and whether the camp's focus was of interest.

This last consideration was overshadowed by the first two, because, as I pointed out 12 months ago, work could not suffer just because Irish children get such long school summer holidays.

We thought nine weeks was long. Ha. Wimps.

I went looking for that article last week as I failed to find anything to occupy my 12-year-old for the months ahead. I know I'm not alone. Any summer camps that are operational are taking smaller numbers of children - which means that many prioritise children who are members of their clubs or with whom they have prior association. This is fine, unless you've no contacts.

Many clubs and camps this year find that with smaller numbers, they are just not financially viable. There is an air of desperation, particularly among working parents, over how to get some activity for the kids, and, let's be honest, some head space for themselves. Oddly, working from home is harder now the children have no school work to lend focus to the day and parents are wondering just how long they can keep going. Something has to give, especially without a holiday to break things up. Even the staycation is beyond many families this year, with money lost on booked foreign holidays, or reduced income, or both.

Which will go first, the sanity of the parents or their offspring?

I sat at my computer last Monday, hands hovered above the keyboard, poised for action as soon as the email came from the tennis club offering summer-camp places. The email came, I filled out the expression of interest form, I hit send. It was about 9.03. They were running five weeks of camp, five days a week, two hours a day. It was enough to break things up for my elder daughter, give her a runabout, maybe even teach her something new.

The hope lasted 24 hours. The tennis coach said he'd had hundreds of applications, far too many to accommodate. He'd had countless phone calls, too, and emails, many of them from people for whom the online application didn't work. The system had crashed under the onslaught, he speculated. He couldn't be sure, as he'd never seen anything like it before.

No tennis for my girl this summer. Nor swimming, as it transpired, when a text arrived from the local pool, saying they were sorry, but they couldn't run lessons as they had hoped. The pool barely breaks even, they explained, and with current number restrictions, it just couldn't be done, financially.

The flat feeling at two opportunities for summer activity disappearing in a puff of smoke wasn't just about failing to fill the ''holidays''. It was accompanied by this awful dread that nothingness is the new norm. It made me laugh even more bitterly at my musings on these pages last year - the modern-adult notion that kids these days aren't capable of being bored.

They've proved us wrong on that one. This year the kids are nothing but bored. And it's not just some spoilt-brat, entertain-me attitude on their part - it's that they are simply desperate for some focus. They have put up with a lot. And yet, as was also the case last year, back in our fool's paradise of summer camps, the issue of parents working through the summer months remains. In fact, this year, even more so.

In all years, there is a guilt factor for parents around the summer. Of course working parents have to keep working, no one bar very few workers and the teachers expect to get the time off to match the children's break - but what always rankles is the refusal to acknowledge how difficult it is to juggle work expectations and having kids at home.

The rush to sign children up to summer camps is easily criticised as symbolic of how gnat-like their attention spans are, or how loath we are to spend time with them. But in fact most of it is to do with logistics. They can't be left home on their own. They need to be doing something.

Or, as it is this year, they can't possibly be expected to spend more time at home with us, while we attempt to do a decent day's work with some ability to concentrate. Their boredom and our split attention was doable up to a point - but we're all well past that point by now, adults and children alike.

The fact that it's all gone too far was evident on the two examples of children bursting in on their mother's television broadcasts last week, one on the BBC, the other on Sky. One kid wanted a biscuit - sorry, two biscuits, as this little guy had lockdown-honed negotiation skills - while the other wanted her mother's opinion on the best spot to place a unicorn. This is where we're at. It's a collision of adults with too much to do and children with too little to do, and the result is not pretty and it's increasingly bad for the mental health of both.

The children need to be occupied, and not all of them can be sent out on the road and told not to come back until they see the Deliveroo bike. Some are too little. Some are too big. Some live on a busy road, or in the country, or hate the kids on the road, or have a disability and have parents trying to work out how to find someone to do the much-trumpeted Summer Provision programme with them.

Get out there and play with a hoop isn't an option for all families. That's why summer camps exist, and that's why it's a source of actual stress to a lot of families that summer camps won't work for them this year.

Of course, the lack of summer activities might matter less if we had any certainty that the schools would be back in full force come the end of summer. The new minister Norma Foley's first job in the department seemed to be to deliver the blow that only the under-8s could return without distancing - leaving the rest of primary school and possibly all secondary school children attending part-time and, yes, doing distance learning for the rest of the week.

Never mind the toll this would take on their education, already three months down, the prospect of helping them to mentally and emotionally adapt to this half-cut return had many parents in a genuine panic. The months stretched out ahead, not just July and August, but on into the shorter, darker days of winter.

There are many empty weeks ahead. It's good for no one. And we need the kids to do something, otherwise parents are going to lose the ability to do everything.

Sunday Independent