Why Summer Break Is Hard For So Many Families

by Brandi Jeter Riley
photo credit: PeopleImages | Getty

I was scrolling through Facebook the other day when I saw an ad for a great summer camp for kids who like to write. My daughter is an amazing storyteller. I’m always looking for opportunities to help her grow in that area because who wouldn’t want to be the mother to a New York Times bestselling writer one day?

I clicked on the ad, read about the program, and I was sold! The camp operated in week-long sessions at 4 hours a day, and there was a location right near our house. I found the page to register, and then saw the tuition. It was almost $800! And my daughter would have to pack her own lunch. And I would still need to figure out how to afford the other nine weeks of summer break activities.


We need to talk about how expensive summer breaks are. As a working mom on a budget with a husband who works as well, I hate the stress that comes around this time every year. This is the time that my inbox starts blowing up with offers to save on summer camps by registering early. Even still, I really can’t afford to pay up to $1,000 a week for my child to experience all of the fun these camps offer.

And if I don’t sign my daughter up for camp, then what? Where will my child go while I’m working? Babysitters around here go for about $15/hr. Even if I could shift my work schedule so I could get off early, and only needed a babysitter for 5 or 6 hours a day, that’s still almost $100 every day.

I don’t know when things changed, but it’s not as common for folks to have a family member like a grandmother or older aunt who stays home and is okay watching all of the kids anymore.

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time hanging out with cousins, watching television, and playing during summer break. I’d go to the library and read tons of books. Back then, there was always a lot of family around who could watch us kids. We would just pile into someone’s house and spend days there with an adult making sure we ate and came in when the streetlights came on.

To round out the summer, I would maybe go to camp for a week or two. My parents never paid more than $50/week for camp, and that included meals. The way things are these days, that experience isn’t enough for kids. Their school year is so packed, and by summer they’re ready for a break. That’s when the worry starts to set in for me. How am I going to afford summer break?

I ran summer camps for nearly a decade many years ago. Our camps were a non-profit, and we received grants to operate. Families paid what they could, and most families paid less than $200 for a full 10 weeks of camp that included field trips, meals, swimming, and more.

I understand that for profit camps don’t have the benefit of grants to cover overhead like we did in my non-profit camp. It also makes sense that a specialized camp that teaches something like writing, coding, or acting might require a higher rate for instructors who are more like teachers than camp counselors.

Still, $800 for a week, especially since it’s not even the whole day, feels excessive. After adding in after-camp care, or paying someone to pick my kids up and watch them until I’m done with work, it’s enough to make a working mom feel defeated. The only folks who could possibly afford that are rich, and unfortunately, we are not rich.

As a solidly middle-class family, this is the hardest part of summer. We make too much to be able to take advantage of affordable summer break options, like summer camp, and we struggle to afford things like tuition and babysitter fees. Since we don’t qualify for any scholarships, government programs, or reduced rates, her summer experience is often dictated by what we can afford rather than what she really wants to do.

We did get a break when I found the perfect summer camp for her a few years ago. I reached out and offered some marketing services in exchange for a session of their program, and they’ve been looking out for me every since. I’m grateful for that, but know that most families aren’t going to find a set-up like I have.

So, what are we supposed to do? How do we afford summer break when two weeks of camp or a month of reduced hours babysitting costs more than our mortgage? I don’t know if the administrators of summer camps can be moved. As long as some families can afford to pay the ridiculous fees, there is no impetus for change. Instead, I think we look at our employers.

In an effort not to take advantage of my friends who allow my daughter to attend their camp, I only enroll her for a few sessions. The rest of the time, she’s in “Mommy Camp,” and I supplement with some affordable summer classes. My job is flexible so I can plan some fun and intentionally educational experiences and catch up on my work when I get home. Last summer we went to play mini golf, had a bunch of trips to the library, and visited some historical sites in our city.

As working parents, we have to ask our employers to be flexible during the summer months. They have to be our partners. If we are to be effective employees, we need to know that our children are being taken care of. Worrying about what our kids are doing, and how we’re going to afford care for them for the summer takes away from the brain space that could be used for doing the work that we’re being paid to do.

In a perfect world, summer camp operators would be more focused on making sure any kid who is interested in their program has a chance to participate. We live in a capitalist society. Everybody wants to make money. If they see a chance to make more, they’re going to take it.

I won’t let that deter me from continuing to search for high-quality, affordable summer break options. I know they’re out there. Until I find those unicorns, I guess I’ll be signing my kids up for another summer of Mommy Camp. At least that I know I can afford.