(CNN)As my son's camp brochures told it, summer's appeal remains as timeless as popsicles and dappled light. It's the season of freedom; a time to commune with Mother Nature and our unfettered selves.
Summer isn't a break for kids or parents
Conveniently left out of these bucolic scenes were us, his parents, hollow-eyed and deflated from the Herculean effort it takes to get kids to camp today.
For grown-ups, summer is the antithesis of freedom, a season we look forward to ending once it begins. It marks the end of having somewhere safe and free to leave our children during the day while we work; the end of a reliable schedule that has wormed its way into acceptance by our supervisors and colleagues; and the end of reliable schedule that has wormed its way into acceptance by our change-averse children. Only the return to school can save us from this mess.
Summer break is a system built for another time, during which a 10-week break could be slotted somewhere between "opportunity" and "minor inconvenience" for parents. But changes to the way we work and play have made the season untenable for many.
Now, summer is the time of year when the pressures of modern parenting hit a crescendo. Moms and dads feel time-crunched and cash-strapped, all the while worrying that our kids aren't doing enough.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of two-parent households today are also dual-income households, in which both parents work. Also, 1 in 5 children currently live with a single parent, a number that has doubled in recent decades. Together, these trends mean that, in most families, there is no one around to watch the kids during summer or pick them up at the end of the day.
This is a struggle all year, as most schools end far before the average work day. But during the summer, the challenge intensifies. First, parents must arrange for summer activities in advance, securing a place at in-demand camps and filling out a high tide of forms. Then, parents must come up with thousands of dollars to pay for the camp, or camps, assuming they got in. Lastly, parents must rearrange their lives to get their kids to camp, while finding a way to fill the inevitable gaps between the camp and school schedule.
If parents can't afford camp, and many can't, they need to either seek out one of the few spots at a subsidized camp, or an equally rare camp scholarship. If that doesn't work out, and it often doesn't, they will need to come up with alternate, affordable, plans, which are also likely to be poor quality. According to the National Summer Learning Association, low-income children are more likely than their wealthier peers to experience summer learning loss, and fall behind in school as a result.
How are parents handling all this? Not very well, according to Cristina Novoa, senior policy analyst for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy. She's been studying the impact of summer break on American families and has found it be a signficant challenge for many. Some parents struggle with finding child care over the summer, some parents struggle with paying for child care over the summer, and some struggle with both.
CAP estimated that a typical family of four can expect to pay upward of $3,000 for camps and other summer activities, which amounts to 20% of the family's take-home pay during the season. When covering these costs isn't an option, Novoa has found that many parents are deciding to take pay cuts or make job changes in order to be able to watch their children themselves.
"It is pretty clear to us that child care isn't working for anyone, and you really see that in the summer, when parents are left with an impossible choice," Novoa said. "Parents want to guarantee their kid is going to have a good experience, be safe, and have the enriching one-on-one interactions that young kids need. So they stay at home, and give up work, potentially sacrificing some income, or putting their career or their job on hold."
While Novoa's latest research didn't take parents' gender account, she said that previous studies suggest that lapses in child care are more likely to affect moms' careers and earnings than dads'.
Further complicating matters is the United States meager vacation policy, a small fraction of what workers get in many countries around the world, and the rapid rise of the gig economy. Sure, freelancers and independent contractors have the ability to control their schedules. But unfortunately, that isn't matched by the ability to pay for groceries or contribute to a college savings program after having to take time off of work during the summer.
Compounding the stress of summer break is the growing, nagging feeling that our kids aren't doing enough to get ahead during their time off. The standard for a good summer break used to be safe and entertaining. Today, a growing number of parents feel as though they must curate their children's summer experience, ensuring that their time away from school is productive as well as fun. Enter the specialty camp.
When the camping movement began in the late 19th century, camps were mainly seen as chance for kids to spend more time outdoors and live a more simple, wholesome existence, said Leslie Paris, an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia and author of "Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp." Parents hoped that by placing children far from technology and other seductions of civilization, they could ward off any adverse effects of modernization, real or imagined. More practically, children at camp were also far from contagious diseases that spread easily in urban areas during the summer months.
"Parents saw their kids as doing something quintessentially American," Paris said.
Beginning in the late 20th century, these generalist camps, those of the bug juice and water wars variety, began to receive competition from speciality camps. Come the 21st century, and these speciality camps took off, making it entirely possible for a kid to spend all 10 weeks of their summer dedicated to learning one or more highly specific skills.
"Parents are becoming more determined to give their kids specialized knowledge over the summer," Paris said. "This is a response to rising parental anxiety about giving kids what they believe their kids need to know."
The offerings at our local camp fair included week-long immersions into: Spanish; coding; theater; chess; origami; survival skills; art; robotics; and cooking. That was just the first aisle. At first glance, a highly curated summer might seem all good and fun. But getting one's kids to a series of these camps, rather than a single camp, can easily turn into a highly curated nightmare. The more camps a kid goes to, the more paperwork needs to be filled out, the more new routines and people families need to adjust to, and the more idiosyncratic camp rules parents need to grasp.
In recent years, lawmakers have turned a long overdue eye to the inadequate child care system in the United States. Both conservative and progressive politicians have addressed the issue, discussing proposals for paid parental leave and early childhood education. Summer break, however, is rarely discussed.
As for a fix to the summer care crisis, the Center for American Progress's Novoa recommends beginning with an increase in federal funding for current summer programs for low-income children. She also supports legislative efforts to cap the cost of childcare throughout the year.
Overall, she'd love to see more research on the effect summer break has on working parents, which would inform policies that could help. Currently, research on the subject is scant. "I want to see more on why, historically, we have reached a breaking point for families and parents are saying we can't make this work anymore," Novoa said.
In my house, we took a two-prong approach to handling summer stress. First, we resisted the lure of the specialty camp, willing to deny our older son the opportunity to learn how to glaze a vase or survive on his own in the desert, in favor of having a predictable, summer-long routine.
According to Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, this is a choice I should actually feel good about: "Summer camp is a place where children can learn collaboration, critical thinking, empathy, appreciation for differences, and how to be in the moment." Being in the same place and with the same people for weeks, and not learning