IF YOU’RE feeling a sense a giddiness at the family barbecue today, it’s probably not because the burgers and corn have been grilled to perfection.
Credit the calendar for that palpable joy in the air.
In three days, give or take, working parents will once again be yoked to that magnificent metronome of childhood: the school day.
Same time. Same place. Monday to Friday, as predictable and uncomplicated as a folk song.
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In a few days, the fire-hose of emails and texts regarding play dates and baby sitting and who’s picking up whom from where at what time will slow to a trickle.
There’ll be no more parking lot traffic jams. No more standing in sign-in lines calculating exactly how late you are for work. No more lead-footed drives across town to reach a day camp that ends before your child’s had time to digest his lunch.
In a month or two, you may even forget the phone number of your dentist and the three emergency contacts whose names you recorded on forms with a frequency that exceeds the number of times you actually called them this summer.
From here on, surprises, when they happen, will be controlled explosions, easily managed by muscle memory and the occasional carpool.
Take a minute to exhale. Then rest up, because soon — too soon — you’ll be back planning for next summer knowing that what worked this summer might not work the next.
In King County, more than 67 percent of the 214,700 families with children under 18 are headed by working parents. Of those families, 33,696, or 23 percent, are headed by single mothers, and 12,343, 8.5 percent, are headed by single fathers, according to the most recent ACS estimates.
The lucky among us have flexible work schedules, a posse of parents willing to cover for each other, or family who can watch or host a niece or grandson for a few weeks. Most of us rely on a village of paid personnel to keep our kids safe and active.
“It’s a total rat race,’’ says Betsy Erving, a straight-talker who runs Arts Aloft, a brightly lit studio in Madrona that offers summer camps for young children. Over the years, Erving has watched parents become increasingly stressed out trying to plan for summers that stretch out for 10, 11, even 12 weeks.
“In eight years, it’s gone from February/March to October,’’ she says of parental inquiries about sign-ups. “I tell them to take a chill pill.”
Still, she knows what working parents are up against.
“Things have changed drastically since the school day was designed, and it doesn’t work for working parents. Unfortunately, I don’t see any end to it. None of this is going to change until the school year is longer.”
There are, of course, a few wunder parents who orchestrate the familial equivalent of the Seattle Symphony without missing a beat — or a day at work. But they are as rare as eye contact in Seattle.
For the rest of us, summer can feel like a clown-car constantly on the verge of tipping over.
We want our kids to have fun. We want them to be with their friends. We want them to have experiences that don’t involve endless hours in front of a screen. We want them to learn independence and stay safe.
At some point, our kids get old enough that they don’t need adult eyes on them all the time, or even very often. Until then, we push the limits of sanity and sound financial planning to keep them entertained and enriched while we work to pay for it all.
“I know I’m probably shooting myself in the foot, but why the whole camp thing in the first place?” asks Erving.
She’s sitting in her art studio on a chair built for children, gearing up for the 240 kids enrolled for weeklong summer camps. The camps begin at 9 a.m. and end at 1 p.m., with no aftercare.
Erving says she’s fielded complaints from parents who need all-day coverage, but she has no plans to become a day-care provider, in part because she believes strongly that children need free time to play outside every day.
“I always say to people, ‘Save the camp money and get a nanny share, and have your kids go to the park every day.’ Screw the whole camp thing. It’s too stressful.”
Stressful or not, camps are a huge industry here, and it seems everyone’s in on it.
IT’S 8:30 A.M. on the first day of the first full week of summer vacation, and Maddox Rathburn of West Seattle is R-E-A-D-Y! Ready for action, ready for fun, ready for whatever wonders await wide-eyed 8-year-olds with summer buzz cuts and 10 weeks of vacation ahead of them.
“I’ve been to a million camps!,’’ says Maddox, tucking his thumbs under the shoulder straps of his dinosaur backpack as he waits outside the Seattle Aquarium for camp to begin.
As Maddox ticks off the camps he’s attended over the years, the quiet man standing next to him in the blue polo shirt and baseball cap looks bemused.
“I’m The Transporter,’’ the man says, though his friends know him as Les Hale, Maddox’s great uncle.
Hale’s main job this summer will be shuttling Maddox to and from camps and other activities arranged by Maddox’s aunt. As Maddox rattles off his summer schedule, it’s clear that The Transporter is going to be logging some miles.
There’s Boy Scout camp, soccer camp, a sleepover camp and, well, can he tell you the rest later because the aquarium doors just opened, and his legs are already moving him inside.
“You learn more stuff,’’ Maddox says, as he and Hale head for the stairs and the controlled chaos of the camp sign-in tables. “It’s kind of like summer school. I love school.”
At the registration tables where campers converge to pick up color-coded T-shirts to help counselors keep track of them, a boy of about 5 buries his tear-stained face in his father’s shoulder, refusing to look up or let go.
His dad, who has a laptop bag slung around his chest, appeals to his son’s ego — “Come on. You’re a big boy.” Nothing.
Not even a cohort offering a box of crayons can dislodge the boy’s barnacle-like grip on his father. Clearly, camp, with its foreign routine and stranger faces, is not one bit fun for him right now.
The working parents in the crowd are easy to spot: They’re looking sympathetically at the father, who hasn’t yet learned one of the first lessons of the day-care drop: If you want the tears to stop, leave now.
Ainsley Gavin, 10, of Sammamish, has no such trepidation about camp. A veteran of summer camps and classes, she’s been looking forward to junior marine biology camp for weeks.
“I chose this one because I have a liking for marine biology,’’ she says. “I love all the animals, sea otters especially.”
Ainsley’s stepmom, Sarah Gavin, drove 24 miles in rush-hour traffic to deliver Ainsley to the camp. She had a phone meeting with her boss on the way and will have a conference call on the trip back, too.
She’s also coordinating camps and summer activities for her daughter, son and stepson, ages 6, 8 and 9. They’ll be rock climbing, horse riding, coding, playing football and tennis and pretending to be spies, among other things.
Gavin keeps everyone on track with a calendar that allows her blended family to coordinate with the other parents. She’s scheduled “mom-cation” to manage particularly hectic weeks and will rely on a nanny to drive one kid to camp in Seattle while she takes two others to camp in Issaquah.
A senior director for the online travel company Expedia, Gavin says it would be impossible to pull off the summer scramble without the support of her boss and her company.
“It requires a lot of flexibility,’’ she says. “I’m lucky to have that.”
Although she does the planning, her husband, she jokes, “does an excellent job at following instructions.”
“I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin,” Gavin says. “I would have loved to have these opportunities we have in Seattle. There are so many experiences to have. What a waste it would be to not take advantage of all the cultural and educational aspects the city has to offer.”
Nancy Towers of Seattle, a relative newcomer to the summer scramble, said she was surprised at the cost and the stress of registering her 6-year-old son, Alexander, in camps he would enjoy.
Towers works part-time, but the odd hours offered by many camps left her few choices other than to sign up Alexander for six full-time camps, including one offered by the Seattle Children’s Theater.
She signed up for the June camp in February and noted that it filled up in a few days. Even with all the money and energy spent, it was hard for Towers to shake a feeling of guilt.
“I do feel bad about them being in something all day,’’ she says. “I know there are parents who are not working who are not worried about summer at all.”
WITH ALL THE disruption, you’d think there would be some scientifically sound reason for the current school calendar. You’d be wrong.
The calendar is basically a holdover from a different era, when educators tried to bring more uniformity to the school year.
Many agrarian communities operated on a six-month calendar, with breaks for spring and fall harvests, while urban schools operated for 11 months. Even within those categories, school calendars varied by region according to the needs of the community.
In the early 1900s, the two calendars began to merge. Rural schools extended the school year to give students a better education, and urban schools began recessing for the summer to curb truancy by students who didn’t want to attend classes in uncooled buildings when temperatures were sweltering, according to James Pedersen, who wrote “The History of School and Summer Vacation” for a 2012 issue of the Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education.
In Washington state, districts are required to offer students 180 days of instruction a year. That’s the national average and the number preferred by most states, Pedersen writes.
“The idea of the traditional summer vacation seems to have become part of the fabric of American culture over the course of the last 200 years,” he says.
The summer holiday is now an American institution, and “the revenues of many seasonal industries have become dependent on the openings and closings of the traditional school, Pedersen says.
By one estimate, parents spend $40 billion a year on out-of-school activities for children, with a large chunk of that coming in the summer, says Katie Thompson, a North Seattle entrepreneur and mother of two who launched a Web startup that sought to make things easier for parents to plan out-of-school activities.
“It’s a massive logistical nightmare,’’ she says, noting that it was easier to arrange a retreat for 14 of her friends, all from different parts of the country, than it was to arrange activities for her children.
Thompson and a business partner created Sigby.com, a website that streamlined registration paperwork, and allowed guardians to research offerings, check prices and availability, and coordinate with friends.
They shuttered the site after a year. Thompson said the market was too fractured, and the cost of corralling all the providers and providing accurate information was too high.
Thompson says there are easily 8,000 providers of activities for kids in the Greater Seattle area — everything from cooking, sailing, football, robots, computer coding and rock ’n’ roll to knitting.
When they’re at a certain age, “we want our kids to be doing things,’’ Thompson says. Hence, the dance lessons the kids are taking during the year morph into the summer “Frozen” dance camp.
The hourly cost of those activities remains relatively constant throughout the year, it’s just that there are so many more hours to cover in the summer, she says.
“It effectively becomes child care, but it’s not child care,’’ she says. “Three-quarters of the places we send kids don’t even have background checks” for their staff.
An American Express survey recently found that the average parent spends $273 on summer activities, an amount Thompson called “woefully low.”
One organization — Community Day School Association or CDSA — seems to have figured things out, though. It provides high-quality, school-based care for working parents during the school year, and all-day summer day care at a cost comparable to city programs. It also offers financial assistance.
Erica DeMeerleer, 37, enrolled her twin 5-year-old sons in CDSA’s program at Maple School, four blocks from the family’s Beacon Hill home. Even though the boys are still going to school every day, there are enough varied activities and weekly field trips to make it feel like a summer camp, she says.
It helps that the staff knows her boys and coordinates with school staff to target activities to build on skills. When school starts in the fall, the CDSA staff will consult with the teachers on students’ progress over the summer.
“We’re paying $2,000 for the summer,’’ she says. “At Bright Horizons, we were paying $3,400 a month for two of them. That’s a house payment! This is a huge break for us.”
Other parents keep their eyes peeled for free or inexpensive activities.
Jessica Carpenter, 32, of Renton, dropped everything and drove her 7-year-old son, Jaylen, to the Rainier Playground after learning there was a free football camp that day.
Summer is a time for growth, she says, and she’s seen Jaylen’s confidence grow each time he navigates new situations and makes new friends.
That, she says, is worth whatever effort it takes to give him those experiences.
“Parenting is called sacrifice,’’ she says. “Days, times, no matter what it is you have to sacrifice in order for your kids to excel. We had our fun. Now it’s their turn.”
Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Ellen M. Banner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.