04/04/2012 02:44 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

Summer is Over! (Well, Almost): The Mad Dash for Summer Camps and Classes

I stayed up till after midnight last night to handle a crisis.

To put my behavior in context, let me point out that I'm the kind of guy who DVRs my favorite 10 PM TV show, because I know if I tried to watch it live, the credits would be competing with my snoring. Similarly, when my husband and I have a date night, we can get a sitter, go out to eat, linger over drinks, and still be asleep for a solid hour before midnight rolls around. So what looming danger presented itself as so pressing that I stayed up this late?

Summer. That's right, the demands of a season three months away kept me up in March.

Technically, what stole my slumber was the fact that a popular local summer program had announced it would be opening its online registration at exactly 12:00:00 AM, and word on the street was that if I wanted a particular camp, I needed to log-in precisely at that moment. So I did and was happily rewarded with a spot for my child in the desired session. Just to see if I had foolishly wasted precious hours of slumber, I checked the class lists when I woke up a few hours later: Yes indeed, all slots were gone by breakfast.

Nationwide, it seems that the real March Madness involves fighting tooth and nail for a slot in summer camps, classes, and enrichment programs. In fact, a quick search of the web reveals that this is true even earlier that this. In rural Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, the local paper announced in January that "there's snow outside but it's not too early to plan for summer"; in cosmopolitan Denver, one center heralded "the first blast of winter" by opening camp registration last November. Something about this breathless race toward enrollment unsettles me.

I try to console myself that I'm no Tiger Papa. I only got so crazy this time because it seemed urgent that we nab one of the limited number of private-instructor swim lesson slots. The one-on-one piece matters because my daughter swims like a brick -- and let me tell ya: the only thing a brick and a fish have in common is a vowel. (Did you know that vowels don't float?) Nonetheless, she loves pools like nobody's business. So, as summer vacation approaches with its many opportunities for her to prove she's a brick, this class felt like a must-have.

But don't they all? There are countless reasons why summer program rosters are so crowded: issues of economics (families in which parents must continue working), matters temperamental (parents for whom more pretend play will lead to institutionalization), and cultural pressure, as the zeitgeist of our particular child-rearing moment seems to involve "enriching" each child's schedule hour by hour until Ivy league admission. It may be predominantly a problem of privilege, but it's not only Type A overachievers who schedule their kids so assiduously. If you doubt this, go ahead and try to get your kid into Cheer Camp at the last minute, and see who's waving pom poms then.

Though these practices are often decried by those who grew up in past eras, others admit that they prefer this chockablock lifestyle. I was one of those kids for whom a classic laid back 1970's summer felt under-stuffed and overlong: Well before September, I wanted to go back to school, where I could socialize with kids who didn't live on my street, make dioramas of places I'd only see in National Geographic, and sing songs in choir that I didn't always understand.

But my daughter isn't like that. What she really wants is many days in a row to sleep in, watch "Scooby Doo" upon waking, get dressed long after the sun has risen, and then finally settle down to some serious Monster High Girl play before lunch. Afternoon would be for playdates, skateboarding, or maybe a heart-stopping swim in a local pool. (A brick I tell you! A brick!) After supper, there might be a little jumping on the neighbor's trampoline, some Netflix action, and, on the best days, a stroll to get a slushie. In her ideal world, only then would she don pajamas, read a story, and collapse into slumber.

Even with teacher's schedules, my husband and I can't provide her this routine for an entire summer, so we pressed her this winter to tell us what she'd like to do come the warmer months. She had exactly one request: a local, mornings-only camp premised entirely on American Girl doll play. Based on the course description, we knew this meant she would spend three hours a day elsewhere doing what exactly what she would do at home, the primary difference being the presence of playmates more excited about "Kit said this" and "Ivy said that." We agreed and booked the camp... two months ago.

My daughter doesn't understand why that can't be enough for one summer, and my late-night effort to get the right swim class doesn't impress her at all. But I don't have time to fully explain myself to her because April is upon us, which means the clock is ticking: it's time to start obsessing about Fall.