Due to a happy set of circumstances, my younger child has four weeks this summer to just BE! Dividing her time between two sets of grandparents, she has an agenda-free month to eat, sleep, play, and be doted on.

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The reason this merits mention is that in the brief perambulatory period of her life, she has not had a single summer where every hour of the day was not meticulously planned for.

Sound familiar? Thanks to nuclear families and the suburban sprawl of American life, parents have had to look for active ways to help their kids socialize with their peers. Gone are the summers of my childhood in India when, after spending the day resisting the blistering heat in a state of slack-jawed reptilian torpor, a streetful of us would congregate at the coolest spot in the neighborhood to play games invented at the spur of the moment, bicker, establish pecking orders, and debate on whose mother made the best snacks.

Leaders were identified, and losers learnt coping mechanisms that surely helped them as adults. We explored unsavory alleys, ate forbidden street food, and tested the boundaries of the very broad guidelines set by our blissfully unaware parents.

My kids, meanwhile, have had “enriching,” “meaningful,” “educational,” and entirely sanitary experiences that violate neither the health code nor the narrow constraints of acceptable behavior. Their summers have been spent in the care of cheerful, trained counselors who engage them in age-appropriate activities, carefully weeding out bullying, meanness, selfishness, and any other personality quirks that distinguish the child from the herd. Toys are scrupulously shared, teams are inclusive, and diversity is celebrated. Even the “adventures” to the local park/farm/creek are pre-screened for safety, with stern memos advising parents to send sunscreen/bug repellant/waders.

At least these regulated endeavors involve some sun and splash, even if the water is chlorinated. Summer camps are increasingly becoming extensions of schools, preying on the double whammy of guilt and fear that is modern parenting. Hypnotized by the zeitgeist that geniuses are made, not born, we want our budding Nobel laureates to seize every opportunity, lest we face their accusatory glances from behind a McDonald’s counter someday.

So kids today spend their vacation learning chess, Mandarin, and advanced math, or spend hours in an air-conditioned room taking online courses that claim to prepare them for higher education that’s still a decade away. Without sensing the irony, they learn about flowers and butterflies in gaily decorated classrooms, and perform experiments on light and magnets in indoor labs.

I pity them, even as I sign them up.

Vidya Pradhan

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