If you can afford to deal with your kids in the summer, then you can afford to homeschool. The collective vision we have for our kids in the summer is swimming and reading and exploring with sweaty faces and dirty feet. This is, of course, free. And requires only that an adult be there for a refill on lemonade or a skinned knee.
The problem is that people are doing outrageous things with their kids in the summer. School is inherently competitive—constantly ranking kids among each other. So parents buy into the idea that the competition extends to the summer. There's sort of a competition to see which family can do the coolest stuff.
The drivers of summer-pastime inflation are, of course, school-related.
1. Camp inflation.
It's not enough to send your kid away from home to learn to be independent and play. The kid has to do something remarkable now, so the parents can talk about it. My friend is a camp director for a very expensive east-coast camp, and he says that the hardest thing to sell to parents (expensive camp directors make in-home recruiting visits, much like expensive colleges do) is that a non-competitive camp is good for their kids. Parents are scared to send their kids to non-competitive camps because traditional school teaches everyone that everything worthwhile is a competition and the winners are who matters.
2. Specialization inflation.
I was sitting at dinner with a venture capitalist. He had to leave dinner early because his daughter was having a breakdown at squash camp. In the midwest, she's a top squash player, coached by her dad. But at squash camp, she is terrible, because the kids have been playing on the national circuit since they were eight. (Not unlike the national circuit for basketball). If you want a kid to specialize, but you send the kid to be a generalist in school, then there is no time. So summer becomes a specialization pressure-cooker.
So camp was too intense for this guy's daughter and he had to fly there for a rescue mission. Like school, camp becomes a way for parents to teach kids to focus on what parents value. And of course, that rarely works out: camps ends up being as oppressive as school.
3. Care packages inflation.
Parents suffer immense amounts of guilt for not spending enough time with their kids. This makes sense: kids want to have their parents around all day. Not to interact with constantly, but to know they are there, as a safety mechanism. Parents provide a sense of safety so kids can explore on their own. When we squelch exploration and put teachers in charge instead of parents, everyone feels bad—even the teachers, who feel, rightly, that they are treated as babysitters. To make up for the all-round bad feelings, parents send kids insanely huge care packages. Now, most camps ban care packages, and parents profess their love by doing crazy things to get around the ban, like taping candy inside a book.
You know the solution, of course: more time. More time to relax, more time to find a passion that is right for the child. More time to practice so there is downtime in between practice. More time to be with kids so you don't have to buy stuff for kids.
But it feels like there's never enough time. During the fall and winter, school consumes all the time, as it sucks any confidence out of parents that they could guide their own kids. So kids and parents both feel like the summer pace would never be sustainable for more than a few months, and it will never feel sustainable as long as it's compared with the structure that school forces on the rest of the year.
For the middle class with two working parents, summer is expensive, intense and unsustainable. Which is exactly what school officials are hoping: because then you are grateful to receive their school supply list in the fall, and you're grateful for the first day of school as a signal that school will restore order to your family's calendar.