Kids' vacation is no break at all for working parents

June 26, 2005|By Rosa Brooks | Rosa Brooks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Summer's here, and for most American children, school's out. But it's still appropriate to administer a painless little diagnostic quiz.

Here goes:

1. When I contemplate the prospect of a 10-week school vacation, I feel:

A. Joy.

B. Panic.

If you answered "A," chances are that you're a little kid. Give yourself 10 points for precocity (you're reading the newspaper!) and another 10 just for being a little kid.

If you answered "B," you're probably a parent. Deduct 10 points.

If that strikes you as unfair, you're right, but if you're a parent, you really ought to be used to unfairness by now. For parents, lengthy school "vacations" are no kind of vacation at all. That tenuous stability achieved during the rest of the year - when, barring the usual illnesses and "weather events," you had child care for the better part of each day - is gone, gone, gone.

Today, the overwhelming majority of parents work full time outside the home. That includes most mothers: Women who have children are just about as likely to be in the nation's labor force as women who don't. As a result, school vacations send most parents into a tailspin, struggling to keep the kids happy and safe without sacrificing the jobs that keep food on the table.

Don't look to the schools for help. The Web site of one Los Angeles elementary school offers parents "hints" to make summer "a productive time for our children":

"Perhaps outdoor play ... could be Monday's activity. ... Friday could be a special trip day, the time you choose to take your youngster to a museum, a beach or on a hike. ... And don't be afraid to devote part of each day to reviewing reading, vocabulary and calculation skills."

The kids might well have a productive summer that way, but not their parents, who will find it hard to squeeze in gainful employment between trips to the museum and the beach.

The workplace offers little more solace. Flexible work arrangements are available to only 57 percent of U.S. workers, and most report pressure from management not to take advantage of them. "Part-time" work sounds appealing, but it usually means giving up health insurance and other benefits. You could use your own vacation to take care of the kids, but with an average of only two weeks a year, that won't help much.

Meanwhile, nearly half of private sector workers aren't covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, so they're not even entitled to a measly six unpaid weeks for emergencies. As of 2004, only about 5 percent of parents had access to jobs with paid parental leaves. And only about 10 percent of employers offer child-care programs.

A lot of parents find the work/family juggling act unmanageable: More than 3 million of the country's children between 6 and 12 have no one at all taking care of them while their parents work.

It doesn't have to be this way. Most European countries offer a range of programs for frazzled parents: more than a month's paid vacation; legal guarantees to ensure that part-time workers won't lose benefits; free, high-quality early childhood care; and generous family and medical leave policies.

We could afford it, and productivity might go up as it has in many European countries. It's common sense. Working parents do more in less time when they're not panicking about how to hold it all together.

For about the same amount we're spending on the Iraq war each year, our government could offer benefits to match those in Europe. Don't hold your breath while waiting, though.

For now, here's a plea to employers: With school vacation upon us again, this would be a good time to cut your employees some slack if they have kids.

What? You can't, because it would cut into your profit margin? I see.

Sorry, parents. I guess we'll have to deduct another 15 points.

Rosa Brooks is an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

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