Squeezed by Summer: For Working Parents, Summer Camps Add Up

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Planning for summer camp started early this year. Let me set the stage: weekend getaway with my husband, coffee and omelets in the hotel restaurant, December 27, 2014. Boodoop, my iPhone sounded. “Who could this be?” I wondered aloud.  

Sure enough, a mom-friend wanted to know what camps I planned to enroll my girls in this summer. “Summer?” I said to my husband. “We barely survived Christmas. How can we even think about summer right now?”

Truth be known, I’d already done plenty of thinking about summer, but I’d vowed not to start full-on camp planning until after the New Year. That was plenty early—too early, if you ask me, yet totally indicative of what it means to parent in the present-day world. It’s not that modern parents don’t have anything better to do. We do, I can assure you. It’s that we spend, collectively as parents, an estimated $70 billion on camps and activities over the summer for our kids, according to the latest numbers released by American Express Spending & Saving Tracker. Consider, for instance, what a recent summer looked like for my own family of four in the greater Baltimore area:

Three weeks of full-day camp A cost $1,800.
Two weeks of full-day camp B cost $1,060
Two weeks of full-day babysitting cost $1,050
Two weeks of half-day camp C cost $780.
Two weeks of part-day babysitting cost $450.

That’s a whopping $5,140 on a single summer. Keep in mind, the payments fall right around tax time.   

Skirting the system
Consequently, when I hang out with my parent-friends, someone nearly always brings up the exorbitant cost of camps and lack of affordable, quality options. And last year, one friend came up with the brilliant idea to skirt this whole “spend every penny we make on camps” approach to modern parenting in lieu of “family camp.” How did family camp operate?

Essentially, it was a rotation of one-week day camps at the homes of four families—all friends living in the same part of town, with a total of eight girls, ages four to eight, between us.

Parents hosting the camp could take the week off from work and run the camp themselves; hire a sitter (or multiple sitters) to run the camp; or do a mix of both. Because my friends have way more vacation than I do, I had no choice but to hire a sitter. By mid-week, I hired a second sitter, and since I work most days from home, found myself breaking up girl fights and sister squabbles, setting out snacks, cleaning up spills, rushing to and from Michaels Arts and Crafts, and shuttling “campers” back and forth to the YMCA pool. In other words, I fell behind on my work—and had to pull very late nights to make my deadlines.

Where was my husband during the fun, you might ask? He’s actually a good helper, and we split things like cooking, childcare, and laundry pretty evenly in our household. But this particular week, he was called away on a last-minute business trip. So he was in a different state.  

Fast-forward to today
This coming summer, family camp isn’t an option, not because of the massive amount of work it involved for parents—more so because it’s hard to coordinate everyone’s schedule, and our kids have interests, and hobbies, and certain camps they want to attend. In my own family, I must have looked at a couple dozen options. And taken out the calendar a few hundred times. And called the grandparents to see what week(s) they might take. And brought up possibilities over dinner with my girls, over dates with my husband, even to a complete stranger in a spinning class at the gym. I still don’t have an answer. But I’m an informed consumer, ever-aware of the options—and the summer slide that can occur when kids aren’t properly engaged.

While I daydream that our local schools will move to a year-round schedule, I also ask: why aren’t there more affordable, better options for families? Underserved kids especially need more support, and so do families in the middle (and upper-middle) class. My older daughter took a test and earned a spot in a competitive summer enrichment program. But guess how much the three-week program costs per child? $3,600 (or $1,200 a week), plus a few hundred dollars for supplies.

She won’t be enrolling, not unless I stumble upon a pot of gold, that is.

As I continue to weigh the pros and cons of various arrangements, I’m left wondering: since when did stimulating kids over the summer become such a big business? Can anything help?