How to win summer

The younger daughter comes home on the third day of her week-long art camp with an invitation to an art show at which her work will be for sale. The art school/gallery will take a 10% cut. We, her parents, find it funny to pay, or bid against others, for the projects that she would otherwise just bring home in a bag on the last day.

We suggest that she should hand over any proceeds to cover the cost of tuition and possibly the cost of the gas to drive her there. And then she gets mad at us.

My husband proposes a 15% cut and she can keep the rest. But she is still mad.

Fine, she says, you don’t have to come. You don’t have to sign me up for things.

This forces us to back up and try to explain. We can’t expect her to share the joke without understanding the context. The more we start to articulate what it is about this leap from kids messing around with materials to being invited to enter a professional arena the more we start to feel a need to take a stand against it.

First of all, it’s not about the money and it’s not about not wanting to go. It’s something bigger and more culturally pervasive. And when you put it that way, your kids totally get it.

Actually, they don’t.

Last week she came home from another camp all psyched because the instructor told her that she could get a college scholarship if she carried on with the sport. The takeaway point for her was that (after three days of trying out an activity for the first time) this was her golden ticket. What a relief it must have been to know that this whole college thing, the reason why we say her grades (will) matter, was pretty much a lock. All she has to do now is figure out how to get her 12-year-old non-driving self to practice for the next six years.

I know, I know, I tell her, we’re meanies, but just try to understand what’s going on here.

I will spare you the entire scene, although the younger daughter, who read this before publication, wishes me to convey that she is a sane and stable person, but our reasoning goes something like this: You, the child, are just doing this activity because it’s fun, like you do lots of other things, because this is the age of trying things out. It’s good to commit to a team because the act of showing up and being part of something and working to improve has value more than the activity itself.

The early introduction of the future benefits (scholarship, sales, travel team, finding your passion) that one could get from an activity puts pressure on the kids to hit those marks.  Why should you think that after three days of an art class you have anything worth selling? Or be good enough to do the sport in college? Which is not to denigrate the fine work you have done—you have to keep coming back to this concept, that you can be criticizing part of something but not all of it. Something or someone can be well-intentioned but have a flawed idea. And we forget that this is sometimes a hard concept for kids to grasp.

Come to the next class, come three times a week, join the travel team, sign up for the state tournament. Pay the fees. Back in London, we were suspicious of any class that offered “a chance” to perform at Euro Disney. Were there not enough performance venues in London itself to meet the experiential needs of the 8-year-old dancer? And if your 8-year-old is making her international stage debut are you seriously going to miss it?

So now you’re telling me that I can’t be an artist, she says.

Nobody is telling you that you can’t be an artist.

Help me out here.

And then this unexpected backlog of thwarted ambition comes pouring out, fires we had neither lit nor stoked. Suddenly it was all so bleak and complicated:

First, she says, you make me miss my flute lesson for the swim meet when I was practicing a piece to audition for all-state and I only swam exhibition and now I won’t make all-state and I won’t get into a good college for band and then you said I couldn’t do this additional sport to get a scholarship and now I probably won’t get into college and I don’t even know if I like doing any of these things.

But that’s just the point. The stakes are being set too high. You don’t have to want to major in something to take the class.

And who knew she was feeling this kind of pressure about college? I feel terrible. We hear things about how older kids are becoming too careerist and driven but it’s happening in our house, in spite of us.

Summer presents us with these huge swathes of our children’s time, which we are trying to fill on their behalf with meaningful pursuits because otherwise they are at risk of wasting time. Is it that we do not trust her to put her own time to good use? Partly.

Left to her own devices she bakes, organizes her room, has read 13 books and visits our neighbor. She had a job looking after our friends’ dogs, twice a day for two weeks, and we didn’t have to remind her or drive her there. But there is also a lot of noodling and flopping around. She has read up on all the uses for baking soda that were printed on the 13.5 lb bag my husband bought at Costco in a moment of madness. She sprawls on the floor and talks to the dog.

You make me sound crazy, she says. You have to make it clear that I do normal things.

Between the 10,000 hours of Gladwellian practice one ought to invest in the name of excellence and the unstructured time children need to develop inner resources and just be (even if that being involves learning about baking soda), I thought that art classes, summer league swim team, a few flute lessons, the chance to try a brand new sport mixed in with a little responsibility and some sleepovers seemed like a good balance.

You can’t win summer. I was being ironic.

We go to the art show, which is part of a city-wide arts week, so there are lots of people at the reception, not connected to the class, and lots of other art on display. The children have had the option to price, auction or just display their pieces. We are at peace with letting her rabbit sculpture go for $20, but I really love the painting she has painted of a door. It’s in the Ashcan style, unintentionally. What if someone buys it?

If you try to win summer, you will lose it, and you will never get it back.


6 Replies to “How to win summer”

  1. We’ll see your art and music lessons and raise you a writing camp—which they both loved and have yet to write a thing since. Oh, well. They’ll thank us when….
    And, btw… I’ll bid $25. 😉


    1. This auction has ended. The art is no longer for sale, but we have the bunny on display along with its price tag just to remind us. Now for the next two weeks, which is until school starts, she has one flute lesson, otherwise she will be left to her own devices. It will be interesting to see what happens. It gives me a social science-y feeling.


  2. I really appreciate this post. Living in a university town, we are the slackers, with not one child (we have a 5 and 9 yr old) having figured out their “thing” or sport or talent to carry them through college. Every kid in this town is quite special, you see.
    You might want to read this NY Times Book Review Judith Warner’s piece on the same theme.


    1. Thank you. It’s a good article and part of what has to come as the inevitable backlash against an unsustainable trend of what my husband calls the meritocracy eating their young. I think he coined that. Interesting to think of this in the context of being in a university town. Are people affiliated with the university more compelled, as insiders, to want their kids to specialize? The hard thing for me to hear from my daughter was the doubt and sense of failed expectation that she didn’t even know if she liked her activities. It was so much easier when she was five and wanted to be a London cabbie.


      1. Our city’s demographics are off the charts in education levels which leads me to believe that many children of academics here have pressure to go to good schools, and check off all the boxes. At the same time, I must say the higher level of education here also produces a smaller portion of families that are campaigning for less homework and more unstructured time. (fewer by comparison for sure from my POV). I just don’t get the overscheduling, activities and pressures starting at 3 or 4. why? It’s the get-ahead/individual achievement mentality in this country’s culture, I guess. Or like the article a grave error in what we think is good parenting and love. Your husband’s descriptor is fantastic.


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