In March, I sat in a Silver Lake theater watching “Expressing Motherhood,” a show that gives women a platform for their mothering experiences. I expected to https://expressingmotherhood.com/ chuckle and cry as people shared their stories. I did not expect to be crushed by overwhelming summer-camp anxiety.
A piano rolled onto the small stage and Mommy Tonk, a raucous folk duo and crowd favorite, started singing, “If you haven’t signed up for summer camp yet, you’d better get your ass in gear.” Between verses, they jokingly implored us to take out our cell phones and start signing up for summer camp. “Do it now! What are you waiting for? It’s already March!” they said.
The song was meant to be fun and campy (no pun intended), but it triggered me. My chest tightened.
I could see myself in late July with all my bright and shiny summer vacation visions that seemed so possible in early June (We’ll visit museums! I’ll create a kids art studio in the garage!) dissolving into the sober reality of my two kids lying on the living room floor wailing, “I’m bored! What can I doooooo?”
Right there in the theater, my brain started racing through my checklist of possible camps.
Tyler mentioned he might be interested in golf a year ago but hasn’t talked about it since. Still, that’s enough of a nibble for me to legitimately sign him up. The only catch is that he has to write a one-page essay about why he wants to attend golf camp. That could be painful. It’ll feel like homework. But he’s already vetoed science camp (Too much like school!), baseball camp (They make you run everywhere!) and sailing camp. Well, I vetoed that one (Too expensive!).
Hadley says she wants to go to roller-skating camp and sewing camp, both of which may only exist in her 7-year-old mind. Research. I need to do research.
For me, this goes much deeper than avoiding the needling whine of boredom. Somewhere deep down inside, I think that maybe, if I can nail the perfect activity, my kids will find their calling. If they find their calling, they’ll find their people. If they find their people, they’ll dedicate themselves to this sport or that art form and avoid all the awkwardness of adolescence. They can pour themselves into learning the guitar or training for junior lifeguards and leave their genetically inherited anxiety on the beach.
It’s all up to me. And if I pick the wrong thing, they will hate it. And hate me. They’ll end up isolated and angry. They’ll start vaping. Next stop: prison.
The mental gymnastics are exhausting.
If this process sounds familiar, you may be an SCP – Summer Camp Procrastinator – like me.
Maybe you’re prone to overthink everything. Maybe you waited too long to talk through summer travel plans with your partner. Maybe there’s more time than you think.
The Downside of Democracy
According to Sandy Marshall, founder of Project Scientist, a full-time STEM summer camp for girls ages 4-12, there are two types of parents who sign their kids up for camp: the ones who book early and get the deep discounts, and the procrastinators.
“There are different factors that contribute to the procrastination, but one thing I’ve noticed is the way parents choose summer camps has changed in the last five years,” she says. “It used to be that parents found the camp and signed up their kids without really consulting them. But now the decisions are becoming much more equal and democratic. Parents lay out all the options and let their kids have a voice in the decision.”
Guilty. I used to sign Tyler up for stuff I knew he liked: chess club, YouTube class, Lego robotics. But when he turned 8, he responded to, “Hey, I signed you up for magic class,” with, “But you never asked me if I wanted to do that!”
A major battle followed each morning as he reluctantly got ready and dragged himself to the car. In order to avoid future power struggles, I started involving him in the decision-making process.
Pitfall 1: Making joint decisions with children can be painful. When my son has a big decision to make, he often says, “I need to think about it.” This can take days. Meanwhile, slots are filling up.
Solution: Make a list of camp pros and cons with your child and set a timeframe for an answer.
Pitfall 2: Some kids only want to sign up for camps if their friends are signing up, too. This can burn major time – and potentially money – while you wait for other parents to deliberate and respond.
Solution: I set a deadline for myself and sign the kids up, regardless of whether friends have signed up or not. On the upside, it’s a teachable moment about the benefits of making new friends. If that doesn’t work, I can always promise a Slurpee every day after pickup.
Don’t Skip the Waitlist
Yes, we all know the mom who booked her entire family’s summer-camp experience in March. But that doesn’t mean everything’s full. L.A. is a vast city with a variety of camps, and there are still plenty of good options for even the most tortured SCPs.
Most camps have waitlists. When (if?) my son finishes his golf essay, I will put his name on the waitlist, then enter the camp’s phone number into my contacts under Golf Camp. That way, I won’t miss the call telling me a spot has opened up.
If you are willing to brave a little L.A. traffic, you might find availability at your child’s top pick at the 11th hour. “Sometimes well-established programs like Project Scientist start branching out to newer campuses,” Marshall says. “The campuses where we’ve been for years will fill up fast, but the newer campuses need to build word-of-mouth, so there will be more last-minute spaces available.”
It might be more of a haul than you’d like, but do it for one summer and score priority registration for next year at the location you want.
Really Reach Out
While social media is a great way to find out about different camps, it’s not the best method for communicating with summer-camp staff about open spots.
“A parent messaged me on social media, but one of my administrative assistants opened the message,” says Morgan Weitz, director of Stages Performing Arts Academy at the Pacific Arts Center and Dance Studio in Century City. “I didn’t see the notification and wasn’t able to get back to her right away.”
Weitz suggests a call or an email to make a connection and get a prompt reply.
“At Stages, we keep our numbers low because we want each child to have a rich stage experience and really dive into the art form,” Weitz says. “But I am willing to double-cast. And I have an on-call staff who are ready to jump in if we have a bunch of sign-ups at the last minute. The best way to find out is to call. I can’t emphasize enough that it’s important to establish that personal connection.”
Think Outside the Camp
Many camps were started by parents who couldn’t find a camp to fit their needs.
“I heard of moms getting together to hire a teacher and share that expense,” says Marshall. “At the time, I was running the NASCAR Foundation and doing STEM activities for them. I knew it was a hot topic, so I started Project Scientist in my living room. I hired all female teachers and it grew by word of mouth.”
Shannon Noel, half of the duo Mommy Tonk, teamed up with a friend for Mom Camp. “One summer, my friend Lindsay held a summer camp at her house for a few weeks. We did crafts in the morning, they had swim lessons in the afternoon, then they played and we had cocktails,” she says. “We split the cost for five kids total and made cheapish, fun lunches. When I had to go to work, the kids would stay and play with Lindsay and vice versa.
“We just arranged it so it worked with both of our schedules. It was exhausting, but the village aspect of it was delightful. It’s always so much easier and way more fun to parent with other parents.”
If that doesn’t work because you work, your company may offer a camp concierge benefit. “The average employee has four weeks of vacation per year compared to their kid who has 14 weeks of vacation per year and the stress of not only finding a camp but of how to get them to and from the camp plus considering the cost – $300-$500 a week average – it’s going to cause them to pause,” says Shayne Gilbert, founder of Camp Seekers, a national camp concierge service.
This can result in a huge loss in productivity at the office. “You’re at work, you have a big deadline on Friday and you find out that your child’s school has a professional development day on Thursday. Well, you’re going to have to bail on the project because your kid is out of school,” Gilbert says. Camp Seekers offers solutions. “We’ve worked hard to identify a national network of programs during the school year and during school breaks, and we work with corporate clients to help streamline the process and to find a fit for their employees. We also help with the process of finding specific camps. “If you say, Oh, my son likes soccer and we live in L.A., then we can direct you to the right camp.”
If you work and have a nanny, consider nanny sharing with a friend. “I used to nanny in New York and they did a lot of nanny sharing during the summer,” Weitz says. “One summer, two different sets of parents I worked for asked me to nanny their daughters together. I would plan activities and playdates with other moms and nannies. They were both only children, so it gave them a buddy to enjoy activities with, like park days, shows, movies, museums, etc. I tried to plan low-key playdates like the park and home playdates on days when the girls were tired or the weather wasn’t good.”
Progress, Not Perfection
Once I dug out from under deep-seated feelings of overwhelm in early May, I made a little progress. My son completed a few more sentences of his golf camp essay. Swim lessons are on the books. A friend turned us on to a summer “Harry Potter” class and it took everything in me not to sign myself up.
There’s a 12-step saying that goes, “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” When I took baby steps toward concrete summer plans, the whirlwind of anxiety and fear lifted.
Every year, I promise myself I’ll do it differently next time: I’ll lock down summer trips by Christmas and have camps booked by spring break. But it’s a relief to know that if I slip back into my SCP ways, there are last-minute spots, waiting lists, alternate locations and plenty of other ways to fill the dog days of summer. Megan Dolan lives in Long Beach with her husband, son and daughter. She has written for Expressing Motherhood, TEDxPasadena and has just completed a successful run of her third solo show, “Lemur Mom (Because we can’t all be Tiger Moms).”