Everywhere I turn, I hear people griping about the explosion of summer camps. The complaints begin with the number of pamphlets littering the mailbox and go on to lament the overscheduling of our children, insisting that when we were young, summer was for hanging out, being lazy, doing a lot of nothing.
"When I was a kid," I heard at the weekend soccer game, "my mom just nodded to the door and said 'go find something to do.'"
That was summer: Three long months of unscheduled bliss, when boredom blossomed into creativity. When kids forded streams unaccompanied by adults. Or discovered their inner pioneer and went fort building. Those were the days. Sigh.
It's true that today, you see camps for every activity under the sun. From Lego engineering to single scull rowing, you can find a camp to suit every pastime. And if narrow focus doesn't suit you, you can find multiple interest camps, or even camps about how to find your interest.
But instead of bemoaning our overscheduled, overspecialized tendencies in raising children, maybe we should take a second look at the summer options and the reasons they exist.
What seems to be forgotten in this grumbling about the proliferation of summer camps is that a few decades ago, it was assumed that mom would be there throughout the summer to tend to the flock (or not tend to them, as the case may have been). If you didn't go to camp, then maybe mom kicked you out the door because she was bored, depressed or had a ton of housework to get done. Maybe you were annoying her with your rock collection or you wanted to play Barbies one too many times. Or maybe mom just wanted to smoke a cigarette in peace.
Waxing romantic about the past is fine. We all participate in selective memory. But historical amnesia about the toil of women in the home in past generations should not be permitted to dominate our tales so that we assume youth were necessarily better off before the day camp explosion.
Today, the fact is that fewer women are likely to be hanging out at home during the summer, because the number of mothers in the workforce has increased dramatically over the last four decades.
According to last month's Pew Trust Study, working women are now the bigger income earners in 40% of American families. This means that there are a lot less women around to kick their kids outside during summer. Summer camps provide structure and activities for families when school is out and parents are working. The increase in camps is in part a reflection of women's steady emergence as equal partners in the workforce outside the home.
You can still choose to keep your kids home from camp. But somebody has to be in charge of them, however loosely. Since we've long since abandoned the latch-key days, we should acknowledge that we've also contributed to the need for more camps and better camps. It's not so much about overscheduling our children as about giving all families options about how to fill the gap that moms have left behind -- whether they are in the workforce or not. So, the next time you get a creative camp flyer in your mailbox, don't roll your eyes and think longingly of the "good old days." Chalk it up to progress for women, and for families, all of whom are trying to make their lives work. You might even be tempted to sign up for a camp yourself!