Parents’ Summer Homework

Rosa Brooks is an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Summer’s here, and for most American children, school’s out. But it’s still appropriate to administer a painless little diagnostic quiz.

Here goes:

1. When I contemplate the prospect of a 10-week school vacation, I feel:

A. Joy.


B. Panic.

If you answered “A,” chances are that you’re a little kid. Give yourself 10 points for precocity (you’re reading the newspaper!) and another 10 just for being a little kid.

If you answered “B,” you’re probably a parent. Deduct 10 points.

If that strikes you as unfair, you’re right, but if you’re a parent, you really ought to be used to unfairness by now. For parents, lengthy school “vacations” are no kind of vacation at all. That tenuous stability achieved during the rest of the year -- when, barring the usual illnesses and “weather events,” you had child care for the better part of each day -- is gone, gone, gone.


Today, the overwhelming majority of parents work full time outside the home. That includes most mothers: Women with children are just about as likely to be in the labor force as women without children. As a result, school vacations send most American parents into a tailspin, struggling to keep the kids happy and safe without sacrificing the jobs that keep food on the table.

Don’t look to the schools for help. The website of one Los Angeles elementary school offers parents “hints” to make summer “a productive time for our children": “Perhaps outdoor play ... could be Monday’s activity.... Friday could be a special trip day, the time you choose to take your youngster to a museum, a beach or on a hike.... And don’t be afraid to devote part of each day to reviewing reading, vocabulary and calculation skills.”

The kids might well have a productive summer that way, but not their parents, who will find it hard to squeeze in gainful employment between all those trips to the museum and the beach.

The workplace offers little more solace. Flexible work arrangements are available to only 57% of American workers, and most of them report pressure from management against taking advantage of them. “Part time” also sounds appealing in theory, but it usually means giving up health insurance and other benefits. You could use your own vacation days to take care of the kids, but because Americans average only two weeks of vacation a year, that won’t help much.

Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans working in the private sector aren’t covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, so they’re not even entitled to a measly six weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical emergencies. Although Californians now have a limited right to paid family leaves, nationwide, most aren’t so fortunate. As of 2004, only about 5% of American parents had access to jobs with paid parental leaves. And only about 10% of employers offer child-care programs for employees.

You’ve heard about the “family-friendly” workplace? Sorry: That’s “friendly” as in “friendly fire.” A lot of parents find the work/family juggling act unmanageable: More than 3 million American children between the ages of 6 and 12 have no one at all taking care of them while their parents work.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Most European countries offer a range of programs for frazzled parents: over a month’s paid vacation, legal guarantees to ensure that part-time workers won’t lose benefits, free high-quality early childhood care, generous family and medical leaves.

We could afford it, and productivity might go up too, as it has in many European countries. It’s common sense. Working parents do more in less time when they’re not panicking about how to hold it all together.


For about the same amount we’re currently spending on the Iraq war each year, our government could offer Americans benefits to match those available in Europe.

Don’t hold your breath while you’re waiting, though. For now, here’s a plea to employers: With school vacation upon us again, this would be a good time to cut your employees some slack if they have kids.

What? You can’t, because it would cut into your profit margin? I see.

Sorry, parents. I guess we’ll have to deduct another 15 points.