The summer break may have working parents scrambling for seasonal childcare. What options are available and which variables should be considered?
Summertime means hazy days, backyard cookouts, and a well-deserved break from preschool or grade school for the kids. But if you’re a working parent, the unstructured days of summer also mean that you’ve got to find childcare. The many choices range from summer day camps, to hiring a summer nanny, to getting a teenage neighbor to babysit your child. As many structured summer programs only run for a few weeks at a time, you sometimes need to build a patchwork of these solutions to have care for your child all summer.
When planning summer care for your child, it helps to first do an assessment of your needs. Since most camp hours mirror a long school day, as opposed to an average 9-5 workday, you need to figure out whether you’ll need before and after camp care, and then weed out camps that don’t offer that service. If you work odd hours, or don’t work every weekday, you might want to consider a babysitter or a live-in au pair for the summer that could offer more flexibility.
You should also spend some time thinking about what you are looking for in a summer program. Do you want your child to have a structured program focusing on one area (e.g., academics, the arts, swimming), or do you think that summer childcare is all about having fun and field trips? Is your most important concern having your childcare needs covered, or does your job offer the flexibility you need to pick your child up early from a camp you really want her to attend? Do you need care for the entire summer, or are you planning a vacation? Consider all of these variables before you make plans.
Christopher A. Thurber, PhD, one of the authors of The Summer Camp Handbook, says that parents should ask their friends, the parents of their child’s friends, and others in the community about the quality of the local day camps. He also said that parents should be aware of some common red flags.
“If there’s been a lot of turnover in the directorship of the camp or if all of the staff is new, that’s a red flag,” he says. It’s also a problem if the counselors don’t speak English fluently. “A lot of camps are hiring international staff. If you don’t understand my child, I don’t want to send my child to your camp,” Thurber says.
Nancy Randall, a single mother of a first grader in Northern New Jersey said that to find the best camp for your children, you need to listen to them.
“Don’t assume that something you liked as a kid is going to be something they like. Make sure that the programs you are thinking about for your child are activities that they are physically and emotionally ready for, and something they enjoy. Talk to them about it.”
Randall also suggested talking to your employer about reworking your office hours in the summer if your child’s camp ends earlier than your workday.
“For two or three weeks this summer I was only able to find programs that run from 9 to 4 in the afternoon. I got permission from my boss for those weeks to work through lunch and charge one hour per day of vacation time which permits me to leave the office at 3:30. I am able then to pick up my son right at 4 pm. I made this arrangement with my company in April so everyone had plenty of time to plan for my short days. You have to start this planning process early.”
If your child is younger or you would prefer to have your child cared for in your home, or among friends, you’ll probably want to get a summer nanny or share a nanny with another family. Along those lines, arranging a summertime babysitting coop among parents who work unusual or part-time hours may also be a good solution.
Jennifer Purrenhage of suburban Chicago has a four-year-old and an infant. She hired a summer nanny to ease the transition for her children as her husband was just returning to work after paternity leave.
“We thought that it was going to be difficult for both children, who have had a parent at home for six months, to suddenly have to leave the house every day,” she says. “Hiring a nanny for the summer let us postpone making arrangements for the baby’s care and allowed the boys to be together for a few more months.”
Purrenhage cautions that although it may seem as though a local college would be filled with people wanting to take on a summer childcare position, she learned that “the average freshman/sophomore college student has no experience with the kind of long days and commitment that a full-time nanny position for two young children requires.”
“So although I was able to place a free ad at both of the local colleges (through the career placement office), I didn’t find any strong candidates there.”
If you are embarking on a nanny share, or arranging childcare among a group of friends, it can only be successful with full and open communication between all of the parents. Some things to consider are how comfortable you feel with others driving your child, whether your child has certain special needs that are likely to be in conflict with a group (e.g. having to nap at certain times or in certain locations), and how comfortable you feel with a variety of people disciplining your child.
Some parents decide to use childcare centers in their neighborhoods on a short-term basis during the summer. According to Peter Pizzolongo, assistant director for professional development, National Association For the Education of Young Children, it’s not uncommon for centers to have opening just for the summer months.
“Sometimes parents are teachers and are off for the summer, or they have a family member who is off and they send the child to Grandma’s,” he says.
He cautions that although it is just a temporary placement, you should do the same kind of homework that you would if it were permanent and make sure that the daycare has the appropriate licensing. He adds that you may want to look for centers that have been accredited by NAEYC to be guaranteed of an added measure of quality.
“One of our mantras is that the early years are learning years, and the addendum is that that happens throughout the year. For young children, those three months are as important as any other throughout the year,” he says.
Finally, there’s one set of childcare providers that you should consider putting into the mix if possible. The time honored tradition of sending the kids away to spend a little time with the grandparents is still alive and well in many families.
Carla Chennault, a suburban Detroit teacher and mother of two girls, says that her daughters look forward to special time spent with their grandmother each summer.
“My mother was anxious to do it. The girls had spent a lot of time with her, so it was more of a home away from home relationship. We didn’t make a big deal out of it at all.”
Whatever childcare you choose for the summer, make sure that it really is right for your child. Remember that “only for the summer” has a very different meaning for a young child than it does for an adult.
As Pizzolongo says, “As adults we tend to think of the summer as going by like that. Just remember how long the summers were when you were a child. Then, summer seemed to go on forever.”