In Defense of Summer Vacation

I'm sitting by the pool watching my five kids cheat at Marco Polo in the pool with their cousins. They've been in the pool for almost two hours when my four year old comes running over to show me her wrinkled hands. But she doesn't want to get out of the pool. She just thinks it's cool to have "little old lady hands."

I'm watching the kids and reading a piece by President Obama's former budget director Peter Orszag who seems to think summer vacation is making kids dumb and fat. I guess he wants to get rid of it. He writes:


It’s July, and for many of us, that brings back fond childhood memories of family vacations, summer camp or long, happy days spent playing with friends. But this quaint notion of summers as a kids’ paradise is dangerously misleading, evidence from social research suggests.

After spending the summer away from the classroom, children return to school one month or more, on average, behind where they were when the previous year ended. Kids also tend to put on weight in the summer two to three times faster than they do during the school year.


To put it unkindly, the average child becomes dumber and fatter during the vacation. And although there’s no need to declare war on summer, there’s plenty we could do to combat the seasonal learning loss and weight gain.

So he's not declaring war, just combat. Whew?! 

The argument goes that summer vacation is a holdover from our agrarian past that now hurts our children's chances at a better education. My kids don't work on a farm. They don't even like eating vegetables. (I guess that's the dumb and fat part, huh?) But you'd think that before Orszag suggested getting rid of summer he'd consider giving school districts the ability to fire bad teachers. But no.

But Peter Orszag left out a few things. He clearly wasn't thinking of parents when he wrote this. I need late June and July just to get vocabulary words, word problems and math facts out of my head. To heck with the kids, I need summer vacation. Unstructured singing along to "Sweet Caroline" in the minivan, impromptu catches in the backyard, pushing each other on the swings for hours at a time. I need that.

And what about long term punishments? My nine year old hit the seven year old on the arm the other day. I sent her to her room so long that she forgot why she was sent there. She came down the stairs after an hour of being banished to her room and she asked, "Dad, why was I punished again?"

I reminded her that she hit her brother. She said, "Oh yeah. I'm really sorry about that." It was the sincerity of the apology that really got to me. Then she went out and joined a monkey in the middle game that was already in progress. I think they were going for the record of shortest time it took for a child to burst into tears because her sisters were being mean and not letting her catch the ball.

You can't punish kids super duper long term like that long during the school year. There's too much homework and running around to do.

Here's my thinking. If any kids are reading this please stop. I assume that my kids when they look back on their childhood aren't going to remember geometry all that well. Let's face it, I haven't had much occasion to use geometry. I think I saw a hypotenuse in the zoo once but I wasn't all that impressed. But while they may forget geometry they'll remember winning the "hold your breath under water" contest against their older sister. (That is, unless the brain cells destroyed by that game make it impossible to remember.)

Kids won't necessarily remember why The Battle of Hastings was important but they'll remember reading sitting on the couch discovering the world of RR Tolkien's The Hobbit which they didn't have time to do during the school year.

I don't think they'll remember all their polysyllabic vocabulary words or which train reached New York first if one traveled from Baltimore at 132 miles per hour and the other from D.C. at 147 mph. But they'll know that Amtraks are always late and they stop and start for no apparent reason whatsoever.

And you know what they'll remember - the time we traveled to New York City and the lights went out on the train because...well, I don't know why the lights always go out on the train but they do. And that's important to know when you have a seven year old doesn't like the dark one little bit. He's not afraid, he tells you in the dark. It's just that he can't see his enemies in the dark. I assume that he lives a very active interior ninja life.

It's funny, the kids don't talk about being in the city all that much. They talk about the train ride. It's like the kid who gets the big toy and wants only to play with the box it came in. I think they liked it because we all sat together just talking and laughing for a few hours.

What I think Peter Orszag forgets is that sometimes just sitting around with our family doing nothing...means everything.

So I yell out to my children in the pool that someone wants to take away their summer vacation and there's a gasp. And just so you know gasping isn't something parents want to hear from children in their pool.

But I think the gist of the gasp seems to be that the government can take their summer vacation when they take it out of my kids shivering wrinkled hands.

Note to Mr. Orszag: Summer isn't making my kids fatter or dumber but they sure do seem happier. And me too.