The Hunger Games of Summer Child Care Start in January

New Year’s resolutions had barely been resolved before parents across the nation started thinking ahead to summer. The scramble to sign kids up for summer camp begins in January, because limited slots and huge demand have led to a highly competitive environment that verges on absurd. Case in point: Rachael Deane, a mother in Richmond, Virginia, has a summer-camp spreadsheet. She joked to me that it is “more sophisticated than a bill tracker” she uses to follow legislation in her work at a children’s-advocacy nonprofit; the spreadsheet is color-coded, and registration dates are cross-posted onto her work calendar so she can jump into action as soon as slots open.

Deane’s intense approach reflects the state of modern parenthood. The lack of universal child care is a pain point for parents throughout the year, but the summer is a unique headache. As with after-school care, parents have to navigate a confusing patchwork of options, but in the summer, they need a plan for all day, every day, for three months. And society leaves them largely on their own to figure it out: A 2019 survey from the Center for American Progress found that for three-quarters of parents, securing summer care was at least a little bit difficult. The system is essentially a competition that has winners and losers, and rests upon a willful ignorance of the reality of most American families—only one-fifth of all parents are stay-at-home. Change is long overdue.

I believe part of the problem is that in the U.S., education is a right for kids, and a responsibility for the state, while care outside schools, despite being just as vital for child development, is seen as solely the parents’ responsibility. So when the academic calendar ends, the government bows out. As Amanda Lenhart, a researcher who has studied summer care, told me, “We’ve made a decision culturally to push the burden of caring for kids during the summer fully onto parents, and forcing them to manage. It’s in some ways a throwback to an idealized family setup and work setup that never existed for most people anyway.” Indeed, the system’s assumption that one parent (read: the mother) should be available to watch the kids is a prime example of what the historian Stephanie Coontz calls “the way we never were.”

[Read: America’s child-care equilibrium has shattered]

Although some people wax nostalgic about lightly supervised summers spent mainly by themselves or with friends, the landscape has shifted since the 1980s, and this is no longer a viable option for many families. The sociologist Jessica Calarco explained in an interview with the writer Anne Helen Petersen that several factors led to the change. These included new laws about the minimum age at which children can be home alone, and a desire among certain parents for specialty camps to give their kids a leg up in college admissions. In parallel, the economic challenges of running camps drove a decline in options and an increase in prices.

The lack of affordable summer care leads to very different choice sets for parents in different income brackets. The mid-winter dash for summer-camp spots occurs mostly, though not exclusively, among wealthier, more educated parents. Lenhart’s research found that about one-third of parents in 2018 were sending their kids to camp; another study concluded that the kids of college graduates had an attendance rate seven times higher than that of kids whose parents had only a high-school diploma or less.

Parents who go this route face a logistical puzzle: Few summer programs run for multiple weeks, cover the hours when parents are working, and are reasonably affordable. Although many municipal parks-and-recreation departments valiantly try to provide inclusive low-cost options, there simply aren’t enough slots to go around. Making matters worse, camp sign-ups tend to be first come, first served, provoking a page-refreshing scrum more appropriate to acquiring Taylor Swift tickets than securing care for one’s children. I was discussing this topic with my literary agent, Laura Usselman, and she told me that in her small Georgia city, camp registration opens at 9 a.m. on one day in January, and “many of the camps are full by 9:03.”

Lower-income parents, for whom camps are often entirely out of reach, sometimes have to shape their entire work lives around the need for summer care. The Center for American Progress survey found that, to accommodate summer-care needs, more than half of families had “at least one parent [plan] to make a job change that will result in reduced income.” Calarco explained that in her research interviews with mothers, “quite a few have talked about how they made their own career decisions around the fact that their kids would be home in the summers and after school”—choosing a lower-paying job because it was closer to family who could help, for example, or taking part-time gig jobs.

The most obvious solution to this problem—year-round school—has never really gained traction in the United States. A mere 4 percent of U.S. schools have year-round schedules, and these still have substantial breaks. Summer vacation’s place in the American cultural mindset is deeply entrenched; there is also a fair case that children need opportunities for open play and creativity through an extended summer break to complement academic study.

Other countries have different approaches that preserve summer vacation without leaving parents scrambling every year. Municipalities in Sweden, for instance, are required by law to offer parents slots in programs known as fritidshem, or “leisure-time centers,” until their children turn 13. These centers provide both before- and after-school supervision and care during school breaks. In Germany, children have a legal right to day care; although there isn’t a corresponding policy for school breaks, some towns and cities organize comprehensive holiday programming, often in partnership with local schools. It’s not free, but the costs are moderate and financial aid is generally available.

Approaches like these in the U.S. would, of course, require funding, and maybe even legislation. Sadly, this country has shown time and again that it is unwilling to commit major resources to child care, laying the problem at parents’ feet instead. A cultural shift is needed to smooth the path for potential policy shifts. The summer scramble seems unlikely to end unless U.S. society moves its philosophy away from “every family for itself” and toward an understanding that school, work, and child care are all interconnected.

[Read: Why child care is so ridiculously expensive]

There have been recent glimmers of possibility. Although it was interrupted by the pandemic, two New York City council members introduced legislation in early 2020 to offer free summer camp for all youths in the city. Last year, several school districts across the country used pandemic-relief funding to temporarily provide free summer programming. Yet the fact that such policies are new and notable underlines the absurdity of America’s inconsistent ideas about when and where families deserve support. As Lenhart told me, “We’ve decided culturally and politically that the care of very young children, and the care of children in one season [of the year], is a burden to be borne by the family as opposed to spread across the community.”

Child care shouldn’t be a luxury good that the wealthy fight over, the middle class squeezes to acquire, and low-income folks do without. But that’s what it becomes every summer when parents’ options are shelling out for expensive camps, fighting for limited slots in affordable programs, or nothing. Until action is taken, forcing parents to sprint to sign up for summer camp in the dead of winter is a not-so-subtle message about how the nation really feels about them.