How to ruin your kid's summer vacation

If your children could tell you what they really want to do for vacation, you might find out that your meticulous plans to keep them occupied this summer is all for naught.

Topics: Disney, Martha Stewart,

At about the same time you slunk out to the sidewalk with your
desiccated Christmas tree — a couple of weeks after the scheduled tree-pickup day — some Pavlovian, maternal alarm went off in your brain: It
was time to start fretting about what the kids were going to do this
summer. Camp brochures and summer-program fliers were jamming up my
mailbox, too, with all but the very lamest (“Kiddie Self-Actualization Workshop:
12-week program, lunches provided,” “Shaman Training for ages 8-11,” “Special
Power Animal Retrieval Overnight Camp”) equipped with strongly worded
warnings against procrastination.

Armed with a fresh stack of alluring camp brochures, I sidled up to my
9-year-old as he sat on the couch doing his daily reading homework while
wolfing down a snack before getting dressed for his twice-weekly ballet
class (if it had been Monday, it would’ve been after-school computer
graphics; Tuesday, science workshop; Thursday, ceramics). God forbid
my child would be stuck all summer doing exactly what he would like to do,
what I had done every summer vacation of my childhood: nothing. Nothing but
hang around the house, untroubled by adult intervention, for three long
months each year that seemed to fan out endlessly before me like my entire future.

How about a claymation workshop, I asked. How about “Build a soap box derby
car”? How about fencing camp? Soccer? Little League? Cooking classes?
Italian? Greek mythology? Trailblazing?

“No,” my son said mechanically, his eyes glued to the spelling list on his
lap. “I think I just want to relax …”

Like his mother before him, my son has exactly two items on his annual
summer agenda:

1. The longed for, begged for, hectored for trip to Disneyland. This, of
course, is the dream of all the children as they head home on the last day of
school, toting a year’s worth of corrected spelling tests and somebody
else’s sweater.

2. Watching TV all day, every day, while eating huge bowls of cereal afloat
in cold milk and wearing dirty clothes, with the shades pulled against the
sun, until you are so saturated with cartoon images and cereal you wander
back toward your room, set up your army men all over the unmade bed and
get distracted for the rest of the afternoon by the strange pictures in
some children’s book that used to belong to your grandmother.

I remember my summers just like that. Adults seemed to vanish — I don’t
remember adults in my summers at all, except for sometimes hearing one
dragging a hose through the lawn outside the drape-drawn window. My two
brothers and I sat far apart in the cool dark of what was known in our
house as “the family room,” letting the nattering soundtracks of
Japanese-animated cartoons (“Kimba the White Lion,” “Speed Racer”) wash
over our brains for hours on end. When we finally did go outside, we found
ourselves blinking in the light. Armed with twigs, examining the flattened
remains of a frog mysteriously run over right in front of our house.

Sometimes one or two of us might get on our bikes and ride to the
playground at the ghost town that was our school, letting our bikes fall
over on the asphalt while we climbed the monkey bars. Maybe we’d peer in
the windows of our empty classrooms, neat now, the chairs piled up on the
orderly desks. Or there were occasional, spontaneous trips to a pool or a
beach, a pleasant, fleeting soreness under the elastic of our clinging
suits, warm peanut butter sandwiches gritty from sandy hands. I
remember just one spasm of summertime industry: the frosting stand I ran
for an afternoon with my older brother and his friend. We stirred lumpy
powdered sugar into plastic margarine tubs and served it with parsimonious
shards of graham cracker — it was a product designed to serve neighborhood
kids, and it was a great success until we were scattered like flushed birds
across the cul-de-sac by a disapproving Avon lady.

And maybe, deep in July or during the first weeks of August, before school
started whispering in our ears as we slept, we might get so bored with the
cool dark of the shaded house and the glow of the TV and the books all over
the floor and the naked Barbies and each other that we’d sit near our
mother, fingering laundry as she folded warm towels. Or despite ourselves
join in the rhythmic weeding of a garden, just for the company, just for a
break from doing nothing for a little while.

What did you do this summer? Some of our schoolmates — fresh from trips to
Europe, pine-shaded sleep-away camps, backpacking with their cousins,
months by some lake we’d never heard of — asked us in the fall. Nothing,
we’d answer. Nothing. And back then, nothing didn’t sound very impressive
or very bad. It was just nothing.

But nobody does nothing anymore. Especially in families with two working
parents, there’s usually a choice of finding (ha!) a cheap sitter for the
entire summer or signing the kids up for serial camps from the week
school’s out until Labor Day. And some kids like that, especially the ones
who are so used to being shuttled from preschool to Gymboree to craft
workshops to play dates that unscheduled time feels barren and strange. (My
son, who started full-time day care at the age of 2, was undone by my
decision to quit my job a few years ago and hang out with him every
afternoon when he started half-day kindergarten. “What’s the plan, Mom?”
he’d ask me anxiously each day when I picked him up from school. “What’s
the plan?”) For many of us, there is no other choice but to have a plan.
Even if your children want to do nothing all summer — sparing you
the application fees, the medical permissions, the waiting lists, the
inconvenient and conflicting schedules — you can’t let them. Besides,
doing nothing is no longer considered an acceptable activity, at least not
for this generation of children.

Unanticipated as it may have been while we were spending all of our
discretionary income on ovulation kits, it is now standard that one of the
responsibilities of modern parenting is to — one way or another — ruin
your kid’s summer. The only question is, how?

“Nobody ever did nothing all summer,” said my husband. “I was out
every morning, baseball glove in my hand before sunrise, and I played with
neighborhood kids or whoever was around, played hard, all day long.
I was outside from dawn till dusk. We played kick the can after sunset
until we were called in to go to bed. If he gets exposed to more sports,
he’ll learn to love it! He’ll get strong and healthy and become a good
citizen! Must go to sports camp!”

“Must go to academic camp!” said my son’s teacher. “Kids who enroll
annually from second grade on get into the high schools of their choice,

“Must go to art camp!” said my ex-husband. “He’s gifted, he needs to have
a supplement to the modest offerings of public education!”

As is the case for many of the important questions plaguing our domestic
lives (how to get the slime off our terra cotta pots, how to make a
chandelier out of baby food jars and votive candles), you can always Ask
Martha. In the latest Martha Stewart Living, our Martha waxes nostalgic
about the value of summer camps, namely the ones to which she exiled her
long-suffering daughter, Alexis.

How Martha loved stitching the name tags into each tiny item in Alexis’s
wardrobe before packing them into a little parchment trunk! How she admired
the lodge resembling a Shaker meeting hall, and the gate through which
the camp was entered via Jeep Wagoneer! In typical Martha fashion, she
fixes on every little aesthetic detail — the garnets found on the dirt
road, the clear mountain lake, the spelling mistakes in 6-year-old Alexis’
letters home, which Martha corrected and sent back to the little tot.
Martha also supplied Alexis with “envelopes addressed to people I thought
she should write to, stamped and ready to send — these displeased her a
lot, especially when they were addressed to people she barely knew.” The
next year, Martha reports without a hint of self-understanding, she
answered Alexis’ long, sad homesick letters (at six, Alexis was sent to
sleep-away camp for a month) with the admonishment to forget about
being homesick and “to write to us only about her accomplishments.”

But it’s already the second week of June, and your plans for ruining your
child’s summer should be well advanced by now. Heartless camp-letter
campaigns aside, it’s pretty much out of your hands at this late date. The
last-ditch options for the desperate are limited, though effective.

If you waited too long to sign up little Eustace for painting conservation
camp, not to worry: When all else fails, you can torture your child at
home. Turn off the television and the garden hose and make your first-,
second- or third-grader start boning up for the next school year with
“Summer Smarts,” a new series of academic preparedness workbooks intended
to “bridge” the wasteful lapse of time between grades (otherwise known as
summer vacation). “Summer Smarts” looks to be the elementary level
equivalent of the Stanley Kaplan courses for the college and graduate
school-bound, and we all remember how much fun those were. In fact, the
authors of “Summer Smarts” are dubious enough about their own product
to include the prescient line, “We do not want your child to dread
Summer Smarts,” in their introductory statement to parents.

Or you can force your children to actually attend the summer programs you
allowed them to pick out for themselves, which they’ve now decided are
stupid and boring. You can browbeat them with alarming stories of the
activities they could be signed up for but aren’t, thanks to your keen
planning and largesse. Remind them that foresight has spared them the
12-week-long, poorly organized (but democratically priced) camps run by the
city Parks and Rec department, where the parents’ handbook exposes such
revealing policies as, “Children who start more than two fights will be
dismissed from camp for the day.”

The final issue that vacation-time parents might have to face is how to
deal with the guilt if you decide not (or didn’t plan well enough) to ruin
your child’s summer. Here, I think the wisdom gained from childbirth is an
applicable tool. Like labor, not ruining your child’s summer hurts more if
you resist. You’ve got to relax, and you’ve got to — in the patois of
labor coaches and Kiddie Self-Actualization camp counselors — go into the
pain. That means buy lots of cereal. And after you’ve listened to two and a
half months of Burt the Chimney Sweep singing with Mary Poppins as the
contents of your VCR molds the summer memories of your young breed, you’ll
probably find yourself lucky enough to be sorting laundry when your happily
bored kid wanders in to make small talk. And that would make it a jolly
holiday, indeed.

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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