For many children, summer is no time to play

July 13, 1992|By Marlene Cimons | Marlene Cimons,Los Angeles Times

"I don't have to learn to swim," the truculent 5-year-old declares in the locker room after a lesson with his coach.

"Yes, you do have to," his impatient mother replies. "You want to go to Uncle Walter's on the lake this summer, don't you? And hurry up."

"Why do we have to hurry?"

"Because you have to get to computer class."

Parents everywhere can empathize with a mother expressing exasperation at the dawdling of a child. But in some cases, say child development experts, the youngster may deserve sympathy, too.

Once, the end of the school year meant the beginning of a seemingly endless season filled with free time -- playing pick-up baseball, sleeping over with friends, camping out in the back yard and generally goofing off.

Gone are those lazy, hazy days of summer.

Today, for millions of American children, summer has become much like the rest of the year: a nonstop round of tightly scheduled, highly organized activities -- many of them designed not only to fill children's waking hours, but also to develop skills that can give kids a competitive edge in sports, academics, even social life.

"Children aren't having the kinds of fun they once did because of all this over-programming," says Dr. Edward Zigler, director of the Yale University Bush Center in Child Development. "The idea that kids could lie on their backsides and look at a passing cloud -- we don't let children do that anymore."

Organized children's summer activities have experienced a boom in recent years. An estimated 5.3 million children, for example, will attend camp this summer, an increase of nearly 30 percent from the late 1970s, according to the American Camping Association.

The same holds true for sports. Little League baseball, which has been around for more than half a century, has grown from 500,000 participants in the 1970s to more than 2 million today.

The changing nature of summer reflects the evolving needs of American families. With both parents often working outside the home, the proliferation of organized summer activities helps fill the gap occupied by schools during the rest of the year.

In addition, experts say, summer activities may lessen the guilt many parents feel over their inability to do more with their kids themselves. They also may assuage parental fears that their children will fall behind their peers if they spend too much time just hanging out.

Or it may just be that in the view of some parents, an opportunity not taken is an opportunity wasted.

"For me, overnight camp was an enormously important personal experience -- living away from home, learning to get along with other kids in a small space," says Nancy Chasen of Bethesda. "But it wasn't for skills development. The teaching wasn't as good. I've wanted my kids to have a better experience."

Ms. Chasen and her husband, Don Spero, are sending their kids, Laura, 11, and Ricky, 9, to wilderness camps for part of this summer. Their philosophy is that "camp is for skills you can only work on in the summer and can't develop at home," she says. "So we rejected artsy-craftsy camps in favor of wilderness.

"Our feeling is that if these opportunities are made available to children, they can choose as adults what they want to continue with. But if they are never exposed, it's a whole piece of life they will never experience."

But in all too many cases, experts say, the proclivity to over-program children during the summer months is attributable to overburdened parents who do not know how to relax themselves and do not understand the value of doing so.

"The adults I know who have these kids -- and are busy programming every part of their lives -- don't know how to play," says Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor of bio-behavioral science at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Our lifestyles don't make it easy to have great chunks of non-programmed time. Overburdened parents can't take time to spend two weeks at the lake with the kids, or pack a lunch and go to the beach.

"That time just isn't available to adults," she continues. "But that time is important in learning how to relax. There's something reparative about just kicking back."

Dr. Zigler, who refers to these highly scheduled kids as "gourmet children," says parents undoubtedly "do this because they love their children and want the best for them.

"So they send them to expensive, worthwhile places," he says. "It's a substitute for time they don't spend with their children. But I don't want to lay a guilt trip on parents. These are stressful times. It's very hard, with both parents often working."

Most development experts say there is nothing wrong with these activities as long as they reflect the children's desires and the kids are having fun.

In such cases, most children find these experiences extremely rewarding. For many children, particularly those who are easily bored or distracted, the discipline involved in organized activities can be healthy.

The danger is that some parents are pushing children to do something because the parents want it -- and that forces children to cope with the pressures of trying to succeed and pleasing their parents, experts warn.

"If a kid has a real passion for what he or she is doing, [these programs] can be a real learning experience," says Jerilyn Ross, a Washington psychotherapist. "But if the parents are doing it to make a child into something he or she is not, that is unhealthy."

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