Between shuffling her 12-year-old son from YMCA day camp to traveling baseball and weekend trips to the lake cabin, Sue Schoepke's summer has gotten busy fast.
"It's nonstop," said Schoepke, of Eagan, one of three dozen Minnesota parents in MPR's Public Insight Network who shared their thoughts about the special challenges they face during the summer months.
Nearly all Minnesota families have one parent who works outside the home, and census data show more than half have two — a trend that has grown over the last few decades. Working parents can face a logistical nightmare each summer to meet their children's care and transportation needs. Navigating pressures to keep kids enriched and engaged in activities while school is out further pushes the stress meter upward and requires families to live on tighter budgets.
"Parents only realize during the summer what school did for them," said Bill Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota who has studied families' efforts to juggle work, school, activities and family time.
Summer camp schedules often don't fit well with parents' working hours, and there's no school bus. Camp is also an expense parents didn't have to contend with during the school year, offering scholarships to only the lowest-income families. That reality forces some families to make tough decisions about their careers or forego extras like vacations at a time when everyone's supposed to be relaxing.
Schoepke and her husband both work full-time, so they have to find care for Sam every time school lets out for the summer. Schoepke said she used to obsess over the hundreds of summer camp options for her son before finally settling on a program that covers her and her husband's schedules while also keeping Sam busy and away from video games.
"We feel much better having him do structured-type activities," Schoepke said. "It's busy, but it's good."
The child care and day camp programs offered at local YMCAs, schools or through city parks and recreation programs are aimed at children whose parents work.
"It's really all day for parents who need it," said Margaret Jaeger, who supervises the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's full-time child care program, called Rec Plus. The approximately 500 kids enrolled this summer at several different sites are participating in everything from biking to swimming to arts and crafts, as well as field trips.
The programs typically cost $170-$200 per week, and some families can qualify for assistance.
After attending a Jewish overnight camp in Wisconsin this summer, Michael Wall's 10-year-old twins will participate in a St. Paul Parks & Recreation program for part of their summer. In past years, Wall said his family tried other day camps, but transportation was a problem.
"Many programs don't run according to the realistic schedule of working parents," said Wall, of White Bear Lake. "It can be regrettable when we know that something they'd rather be doing is unrealistic in one of a myriad of ways."
Wall said the family spends hours each year finding programs that are affordable, fun and logistically possible.
PRESSURE FOR ENRICHMENT
Wall said there's also pressure to find enriching experiences for his kids in the summer.
"We don't want a waste of time — our time or their time," he said, adding that one summer the twins ended up in a program they didn't like. "We have good kids. They're not lying on the floor having a tantrum, they are dealing with it, but we do want to try to reach that golden balance between what they're really going to enjoy doing and what we're going to enjoy having them do."
Wall said it'd be great if the family could afford to send the twins to camps at the Science Museum of Minnesota all summer long, but it's just not possible. The only way they were able to attend the Jewish overnight camp is through scholarship money from several sources.
Although special enrichment day camps through the Science Museum and the University of Minnesota offer scholarships, many of the programs cost close to $300 per week.
Such academic enrichment camps can be too much of a burden for many middle class parents whose incomes are too high to qualify for scholarships, said Doherty, the university family social science professor. Yet the pressure to keep their kids' minds active in the summer months remains.
"This generation of parents thinks enrichment, enrichment, enrichment," he said.
Doherty recommends against parents adopting adult-like, busy schedules for their kids.
"Kids thrive on downtime," he said. "It's OK to have less of a schedule and less pressure."
Schools that are on year-round schedules can help reduce the summer brain drain that research has shown exists. Laska Nygard, of St. Paul, has been sending her 7-year-old son Henry to a year-round school. Besides distributing instruction time throughout the year instead of packing it into nine months, year-round schooling is also easier on parents, because they don't suddenly have to come up with ways to keep kids busy for three months, Nygard said.
"For working parents, I just think it's a really good thing," she said. "I have a lot of friends who kind of go nuts in the summer."
Now that Henry is switching to a school with a nine-month calendar, Nygard said she's hoping for the best. "We thought long and hard about it," she said.
Some parents decide staying home or working part-time makes more sense than spending most of their full-time paychecks on child care. Others are able to cut back on work to spend more time with their kids.
Minda Shultz, of Bloomington, decided this summer to take the extreme step of quitting her full-time job to stay home with her 13-year-old son. She said finding opportunities for him was challenging because most programs are for younger children, but having him stay home alone wasn't a very good option either.
"We tried piecing things together for the first few weeks, which resulted in two lunch-time runs home for a smoking microwave and wasps in the kitchen on another occasion," she said. "In the end it just seemed better to throw in the towel and spend the time with him."
Shultz said she looks forward to teaching her son some life skills this summer so that she can return to work in a few years. "We will just have to make things work on a tighter budget for awhile," she said.
Adam Nafziger, of Minneapolis, is home with his kids year-round, but summers are a special time to "throw the schedule by the wayside," he said.
This summer, Nafziger's 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter will enjoy bicycle camping, visiting grandparents, day trips to the zoo and museums, and swimming lessons — plus plenty of unstructured time, he said.
"I want to somehow have the summer feel that it's a break from the routine. I don't want them to hit a Saturday in July and say, 'oh, I'm so glad the weekend is here,'" he said.