Apodaca: Kids and parents need balance in summer activities

Oh, the joys of spring! Flowers are in bloom, tax returns are due, and parents are stressing out over what the heck to do with their kids this summer.

When I was young, back in the Mesozoic Era, the lazy days of summer were all about playing outside until Mom called us in, reading comic books, and piling into Dad's beat-up station wagon for our annual road trip. Thoughts of school were stored away along with my Pee Chee folders and wool sweaters.

Not so for my kids. Summer for them has been a time to expand their portfolios, burnish their academic, social and athletic skills, and rack up community service hours.

Most of us want our kids to partake of summer activities that they truly enjoy. But somewhere along the line, summertime transformed — at least for the middle- to-upper classes in America — from a real break into a calculated exercise in enrichment building.

And right about now is when we parents find ourselves in the midst of planning summer schedules, with a mind toward achieving a desired level of industriousness. All too often, we put inordinate pressure on ourselves, and our children, in our earnest but possibly somewhat misguided attempts to leave not a day wasted.

I'm thinking about this as I help my younger son complete applications for various summer programs we have agreed upon. We've gone through this every year since he was just a wee thing.

Now that he is a junior in high school he recognizes clearly that a total escape from the high expectations of the regular school term isn't the way it's played these days. This summer presents his last opportunity to show the colleges he'll be applying to in the fall just what a well-rounded, enterprising young man he is.

How did we get here?

Once upon a time, there was no summer vacation. In the early days of our nation, before education was compulsory, the formal schooling that did exist was unregulated and vastly diverse. Rural schools were scheduled around spring planting and fall harvest seasons, while urban students who attended school had only short breaks.

About the middle of the 19th century, educational reform activists began promoting the idea that both students and teachers would benefit from time off during the hottest months — a concept that conformed to the summer holidays preferred by the wealthy.

A huge change occurred in 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, which set legal standards for child labor — a development that was paired with efforts to provide free, compulsory education for all children. As these national standards emerged, the common practice of summer vacations became established policy.

Yet the modern school calendar has never been viewed as a perfect solution, and the question routinely arises as to whether summer vacation is an outdated and ineffective concept; thus, we continue our attempts to fiddle with school schedules. Over the years, school districts across the nation have experimented with year-round schooling, modified schedules and shorter breaks.

Some education reformers have couched the argument for reducing long stretches of time off as a matter of national competitiveness. They cite the examples of other industrialized countries, where children spend more days and longer hours in the classroom, and argue that our teachers waste time reviewing material in the fall that students forget over a long summer.

Many argue that lengthy summer breaks also present a significant disadvantage to less well-endowed families who can't afford pricey camps and enrichment programs. To them, a longer school year is also a question of economic fairness.

But in these budget-strapped times for education, the possibility of a longer school year is virtually nil.

In Newport-Mesa Unified, we've settled upon a schedule that calls for an uninterrupted two-and-a-half month summer vacation, an annual event that parents tend to anticipate with a mixture of longing and dread.

The summer planning ritual becomes even more complicated for one-parent households and families in which both parents work. Meshing a patchwork of activities for the children with busy adult careers is no easy feat.

Adding to the burden is the mindset that we must make every minute of our children's lives count.

Egged on by an educational establishment that plays to our worst fears about our children's futures, we tend to see unstructured time as a squandered opportunity to forge and chisel our kids into perfect little nuggets of accomplishment.

For all my years of trying to find the perfect blend of activity and leisure, I'm not sure I ever got it quite right.

I recall an "ah-ha!" moment I had years ago, when I told my sons about the regular summertime water-balloon battles in the neighborhood where I grew up. I may have learned a few survival skills, but otherwise these skirmishes were a completely mindless way for a bunch of kids who were bored out of their skulls to blow off steam.

My kids thought I was "so lucky" to have spent my summers so engaged. I believe this discussion might have occurred sometime between a highly touted video production camp and a trip to Europe. Lucky indeed.

Somewhere out there, I am convinced, lies the optimum point between letting our kids turn into brainless blobs and pummeling them with relentless, over-orchestrated summer activity. If anyone has found it, be sure to clue the rest of us in.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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