The Fear & Loathing of Summer Day Camps

The Fear & Loathing of Summer Day Camps

Summer is coming!

summer camp in New OrleansIn my youth, this meant sleeping in, eating whatever sugary cereal I could find, and spending my days riding bikes and bouncing between my friends’ houses. Sometimes I’d swing by my house because we had the good peanut butter, but many days my mother had no idea where I was or what I was doing. I vividly remember discovering MTV for the first time at a friend’s grandparent’s house. As long as I folded the clothes and did the other chores my mom left and returned home at a reasonable time, I was FREE.

The life of the average Generation Z/Alpha kid, however, is dramatically different from the freedom and leisure that came with summer for me and my friends. The first summer after my older daughter was finishing kindergarten, I realized that I was screwed. I had no idea how many camps there are or that they fill up their enrollment in February or March, and was not prepared for the amount of time I’d need to register her for a summer of “enrichment opportunities,” all so I could do my full-time job.

As the mother of two kids, now in middle school and high school, I am very close to never having to think about summer camp again. I will be as happy as I was when I yanked the car seat out of my car for the last time!

I have a few tips for moms who are embarking on this journey for the first time:

  1. It’s early March. You’re probably too late.

Seriously, summer day camps start registration in January and the most popular of them fully enroll within an hour on the first day of registration. Prepare like you did when those Taylor Swift tickets went on sale. Do your research in November/December and mark your calendar for the dates and times camps begin enrollment, especially if the camp is popular and/or it’s the perfect one for your kid. My daughter probably still holds a grudge that I botched the dates for registering for Harry Potter camp.

  1. Beware the Friday “performance.”

Many camps love to get parents involved. Come on Friday and watch them perform the dance they learned that week! Come on Friday to see a demo of the plastic worm with LED lights they made! We can’t wait for Friday to show you the play they learned 3 hours ago! After a few mistakes, I have learned to filter for this in my search. If I had 2 hours on a Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t need them to be in summer camp. Covid wreaked havoc on some of this, but I see it creeping back in. If you don’t want to take off work every week for this, look for this from the outset.

  1. Prepare to invest in T-shirts and/or laundry detergent.

Many camps require campers to wear their special camp shirt EVERY DAY. That means you either buy five shirts, or you do a lot of laundry. Or, like my kids, you sometimes just go to camp with a dirty shirt. I have boxes and boxes of camp shirts. What do you do with them at the end of each summer? Some camps even have a different shirt each week. Or a different color for each day. I often wonder whether these camp directors have kids of their own.

  1. Get organized and set aside more time than you think you’ll need.

Most camps have an online registration system, which is very nice. For those that don’t have this system, prepare to send emails, wait for replies, and make follow-up calls. However, even with online registration, more and more camps are asking for immunization records, signed liability waivers, waivers to take pictures of your kid, and more. I would sign a single form that releases the camp from all liability of all the things if it was a shortcut from the half dozen or more forms many camps now require. You’ll need multiple emergency contacts, phone numbers for doctors and dentists, and God help you if your child has special needs that have to be documented. For some, you need to upload a picture of your kid. Others need your health insurance info (not just whether you have it, but the policy numbers, etc.). Many require a ranking of the available options. Some ask questions about why your kid wants to go to the camp or about their level of experience with crafts or yoga or whatever the specialty of the week will be. Once, I wrote on a questionnaire, “She wants to come to this camp because her mother needs childcare and we hope you will keep her alive.” That might’ve been Harry Potter Camp. Oops.

  1. Don’t get picky.

If you are a working mom and camp isn’t just about enrichment, but is an absolute necessity, don’t be picky. Your kid will survive 5 days doing origami or theater or learning to canoe. Not every camp has to be a growth experience. They just need to stay alive. And maybe they’ll find something they didn’t know they liked or meet some cool new friends. My kids have been to pony-riding camp, cooking camp, financial literacy camp, Spanish camp, animal welfare camp, Zoo camp, sports camp, theater camp, sewing camp, art camp, electrician camp, and many others. We’re not Catholic, but many Catholic schools have great camps. They didn’t love every camp and begged not to return to some. But, they stayed alive. Don’t get picky.

Even if you’re starting late and have no idea the myriad options out there, you’ll find something. Your bundle of joy will be fine. You’ll pay a ton, but for many of us, it means you get to keep your day job.

About the Author

J. Celeste Lay is a professor at Tulane University and the mother of two daughters. She has lived in New Orleans for nearly 22 years, at different points in her life. She is a dance mom, although even after 13 years, she still has a lot to learn. She enjoys traveling, planning travel, and thinking about the next trip and has recently begun planning trips for other people.


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