Summer Camp and Parenting Panics | The New Yorker

Parenting panics are mostly upper-middle-class affairs. Panics require media attention to metastasize and grow, and the news media in this country is largely produced for people making more than, say, eighty thousand dollars a year. The parenting problems of the poor tend to be pathologized or ignored; those of the wealthy might be addressed in the occasional voyeuristic piece about affluenza or what have you, but we assume that the train from Dalton to Harvard to Goldman Sachs still runs. It is the members of the middle class, and particularly those in the upper reaches of it, who suffer from what the writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling”—of sliding from the cul-de-sacs of Scarsdale down to some imagined squalor whose contours they can’t quite delineate, probably somewhere in New Jersey. And so, in the press, the national conversation about parenting gets reduced to a narrow sliver of kids in well-to-do suburbs who attend good schools and would surely be on a solid track to success if not for the panicked-about things in their way.

In two weeks, Frankie, my seven-year-old daughter, will start her seasonal job of attending one summer camp after another. My wife and I both work, which means that, during summer break, we need Frankie to go somewhere else for six or seven hours a day. We would prefer this place to be safe and spiritually fulfilling and maybe even help her develop some fun skill or another. But we are also desperate buyers who can be sold any story about friendship, nature, or broadened horizons. Many of the fellow-parents in our affluent Bay Area city feel the same way, and there isn’t enough supply to meet demand. When the time comes, then, to sign our daughter up for camp, we engage in the same sharp-elbowed tactics that dictate spots in swimming lessons, youth sports, and Russian-math classes.

Summer camp has reportedly become a three-and-a-half-billion-dollar industry, and it’s not hard to figure out why. More than half of American households are now dual-income and roughly two-thirds of households with two children are dual-income. That has been true for the past twenty years, but, more recently, a cultural shift has made it less tolerable for the children of the panicking class to be running around by themselves all summer long. Days are planned around the moment when camp registration opens up; notes are compared about best practices for securing a spot. But the impetus for all this isn’t really the fear that our children will fail to reach their full potential if their precious brains aren’t being optimally enriched at all times. Rather, the fear is that we will not have child care for a week or two, our lives will fall apart, and we’ll end up in a bad town with bad schools. This isn’t a rational fear, but it is deeply felt, and it bleeds into nearly every other parenting decision we make. Middle- and upper-middle-class parents have always reflexively panicked about their children, but I wonder if we have ever been quite so incurious as we are now about why.

The history of summer camps is more or less what you’d expect. They were started in the late nineteenth century as a way for city-bound boys to get some fresh air and relearn masculinity and the virtues of being in nature. Industrialization had pushed many middle-class families into urban areas, where they quickly found themselves surrounded by new immigrants from Europe. In response, a group of proprietors—largely private-school operators who needed a way to expand their businesses to the summer—began to construct bucolic bubbles that would take young boys (and eventually girls) away from the filth of the city.

In her book “A Manufactured Wilderness,” the art historian Abigail A. Van Slyck convincingly lays out the case that summer camp represented a dual fantasy of health and exclusion. Describing the “middle-class, native-born Americans” of the eighteen-nineties, she writes:

In their eyes, the rise of large cities deprived modern children of wide-open, sun-filled spaces for active play, while overcrowded tenements and substandard sanitation threatened the very health and vitality of the young. Massive European immigration made these developments particularly troubling, flooding American cities with children who were not just culturally different from Anglo-Saxons, but understood to be racially inferior to them as well. How, these native born Americans wondered, would immigrant children learn the cherished values of the American republic in congested cities? What was to prevent urban youths from becoming hollow-chested toughs who would rather haunt the nickelodeon than engage in wholesome play?

If you grew up any time in the twentieth century in this country, you likely have memories of this rugged-yet-carefree vision of camp. My parents usually kept me and my sister at home during the summers, and camps were few and far-between, but many of my friends spent four weeks on the North Carolina coast at Camp Sea Gull, where they learned to race sailboats, shoot arrows at targets, and knit lanyards. Other friends went to the Talent Identification Program, or TIP, at Duke University, where they could take advanced classes in math, learn to write essays, and live together in dormitories with other bookish strivers from all over the East Coast. TIP is now essentially the Duke Pre-College Program; for the price of roughly five thousand dollars per two-week stay, your child can be given “access to cutting-edge curriculum and technology beyond the average classroom while connecting them with transcendent peers from around the world and influential professionals in their future field.”

Just as the bucolic camps of the nineteenth century were sold as a way to keep your child out of the immigrant ghettos, programs like TIP promised a way for upper-middle-class strivers to give their children an academic edge over their classmates. (Ironically enough, many of the kids I knew who went to TIP were from immigrant families with parents who typically wanted a way to distinguish their children from their white classmates.) The function of both types of camp is more or less the same: parents purchase the illusion of privilege by removing their children from certain of their peers and placing them in a more rarefied setting, whether it’s the forests of the Catskills or the neo-Gothic monstrosities that are found on the campus of Duke University.

I am not immune to any of these forces. Sometimes, when I think about my children’s future, I realize that I have a poorly updated and chaotic ledger in my head in which “meaningful experiences” and “development” act as currency. (The debits from this account mostly come in the form of screen time.) But, when I try to examine this imaginary ledger, I realize that I have no idea what the balance might be on any given day. The only part of all this manic parenting that seems clear is that I always feel like Frankie and I are running up a debt and that, as a responsible parent, I should pile up as much savings as I can.

What’s even odder, although it’s not really surprising, is that this entire fake economy of edifying activities, wilderness appreciation, and whatever else, is not really in the service of anything. I don’t think that exclusive colleges should exist at all, and, as a result, I don’t feel much pressure to send my child to them. I also know enough about education and economics to understand that the advantages that Frankie receives from being born to two grad-school-educated members of the panicking class who put her in a “good school” far outpace anything she could ever learn at a summer camp. Most of our fellow-parents also understand all these things. It may be tempting to infer that all of us are liars, and that a nasty, striving heart lies underneath these self-deprecating acknowledgments and platitudes, but I don’t think any of us is really that clever. The hypocrisies of the liberal upper middle class tend to be more mundane and self-evident.

Summer-camp mania feels, instead, like a much more typical corrosion of modern life. Although many of us have stopped believing the myths that places like TIP and the bucolic summer camp tell us about the competition our children will face, we cannot stop sending our kids to them because we cannot conceive of an unscheduled moment. Nor can we explain why things have to be this way. This is just how kids grow up now, and we feel powerless to find an alternative because we cannot take the week off to even figure out what it might be.

These are not the sorts of problems that elicit sympathy—we are, after all, talking about well-to-do parents with kids who will generally inherit their parents’ class privileges—but I do think they help to illuminate something about today’s seemingly unending parenting panics, not only those concerning the shrinking acceptance rates at exclusive colleges but also the freakouts about the supposed wokeness of school curricula and about the harms of social media. In a not too distant past when more parents had faith in the inevitability of American progress, the push for class ascendancy might have felt a lot more reasonable, even rational. These days, though, we have been hit with a heavy dose of reality. We know that, even if we carefully manage our children’s economy of enrichments, they probably won’t end up at Harvard, anyway.

The parents of the panicking class are reacting, in large part, to a necessary—and, ultimately, I think, refreshing—demystification. We do not have enough money to buy our kids real class mobility, and the more affordable avenues of academic or athletic striving no longer feel reliable. The striving has become unmoored from any sincerely held vision. I do not know why I’m sending Frankie to so many summer camps. I do not know why she has to play on the top competitive soccer teams. I do not know why she should enroll in our town’s version of Russian math next year. I do not know why she cannot spend at least a couple of weeks this summer doing absolutely nothing and learning to be bored. You can tell me that you understand exactly why your child does these things, but I probably won’t believe you. What we can agree upon, I suspect, is that neither you nor I will change, because neither of us knows how. ♦

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