Sunday 21 July 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Summer camps can't keep a working parent's guilt at bay'

Parents are filled with guilt however they approach the long weeks of summer, writes Sarah Caden

MAKING MEMORIES: The long, lazy days of summer are largely a thing of the past as parents juggle work with summer camps and childcare
MAKING MEMORIES: The long, lazy days of summer are largely a thing of the past as parents juggle work with summer camps and childcare

Sarah Caden

There is a question mark beside the name of one of my children in one week of the summer schedule.

This schedule is stored in the Notes app of my phone. The schedule was begun in May, slowly filling up with camps and childminders, with just that single child for that single week continuing to stump and panic me.

The conversation about summer camps usually begins at the school gates in May. Chat about the present is replaced with chat about what will happen once the primary schools close for almost two months at the end of June and, funnily enough, the adults still have to go to work.

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If we are lucky, there is a one- or two-week holiday to provide an interlude of togetherness, but otherwise it's all about putting together a jigsaw of activities for the children.

We worry if there isn't enough variety, we worry if the hours are too short or too long, we worry that they're too busy or not busy enough. We really worry about August, when the camp options dry up due to the assertion that "everyone's away in August", like we're Parisians or something.

There are two ways of looking at the feverish manner in which the modern parent fills up their child's summer schedule.

One is it's only awful that kids aren't allowed to be bored any more, that we feel this desperate drive to constantly keep them entertained with activities.

The scolding end of this point of view tends towards casting today's parents and their children as entirely spoiled. We pay for the parenting to be done elsewhere, and our kids have the attention spans of gnats.

Isn't it awful, this opinion goes, that modern nippers need to be stimulated constantly, when their development would be far better served by playing outside with a hoop or earning a couple of euro mowing the neighbours' lawns.

There's some good sense in this argument, even if it makes most parents bristle.

And we bristle because, from the other side of the argument, we don't sign them up to camps because we want to, or because we can't think of better ways to spend a fortune.

We sign them up because this is how we manage to get out to work for these weeks of the year.

We dress it up all kinds of ways, as self-improvement for the kids, or as a way of keeping them fit and doing our bit for the obesity crisis, but really, we're doing it because we have to.

The truth is that maybe they'd be better off out on the road playing with a hoop or mowing the neighbour's lawn, but if there's no parent at home, then that's not an option.

This is why, while we really try to keep the child's interests paramount in the choosing of summer camps, more often the criteria of proximity, price, hours and available dates are the deciding factors.

Johnny may well love the idea of that camp where you do science experiments in the morning and ride llamas in the afternoon, but if it's 10km away and €250, then the local soccer camp trumps it.

But not if the local soccer camp is a mere two and a half hours long.

Sure, maybe the kids can't do much more with soccer after that amount of time, but tell that to the parents' employer.

Which is why so many summer camps now run longer than morning to early afternoon, to the great relief of so many working parents, but also at the cost of greater guilt on their part.

When, we try not to ponder, does a summer camp tip over into fun-packed juvenile detention?

Something that increasingly helps to assuage that guilt, however, is the growing trend towards child-improving camps. These are camps that promote learning of Irish or maths or coding.

Or the camps that promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning, which is of course good for the children, but also make parents feel better about compensating for how reportedly lagging our children, especially our girls, are in this area.

There are block-building camps that promote the fun of building, but also talk up how they can help nurture the engineers of the future.

In my own piecing-together of the summer jigsaw, I've looked at websites of camps that improve life skills and self-confidence and ability in all manner of European languages. There are camps where you play soccer through Irish, or bake or even learn to do embroidery.

It's fun, parents, but by sending your child to this sort of camp, you're also improving their future prospects.

Use the summer wisely, and then they can go out and be good little worker bees like the rest of us, unquestioningly heading off every morning, relentlessly worrying about not doing enough for our kids, being enough with our kids, giving enough of ourselves to our kids.

Of course, our children are lucky to have such varied and exciting activities to fill their time.

We all remember being bored over the long summer holidays and, really, prolonged boredom is seriously overrated.

Today's children are lucky, but it's the parents we should be worrying about. The reality is that even checking them in to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory for the nine weeks couldn't get us to shake off the guilt entirely.

That social-media driven pressure to "make memories" is partly to blame. No matter what we do - work, keep them entertained, try to squeeze in a holiday - are we doing enough to make memories in for our kids that match the summer memories being made in other homes?

In reality, however, unless something truly bad or neglectful occurs, most people's childhood memories are predominantly good.

The fun days, the sunny days, the activities and lack of activities blur into one big mess of good times, utterly unaffected by how much hassle it costs the parents to create.

The parents, in fact, are the ones for whom the summer memories made are of spreadsheets and panicked online camp-browsing and shelling out to keep everyone supervised.

The summer camps keep the kids happy, but for the parents, there's precious little fun.

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