Why Parents Hate Summer Break

The U.S. has a summer childcare crisis.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Working mom Sheila Custard (center) is just over the threshold for childcare subsidies in Colorado, so daughter Jaelyn, 6, spends most of her summer indoors. (Photo by Sebastian Fortuño)

Chil­dren across Amer­i­ca are spend­ing mem­o­rable sun­ny days splash­ing at the pool, doing arts and crafts or attend­ing STEM camps, but 6‑year-old Jaelyn’s sum­mer has not been as event­ful. Much of it has been spent indoors.

Summer childcare is especially tricky—difficult to find, expensive and misaligned with the schedules of working parents.

Since her ele­men­tary school let out in May, she’s been shut­tled among rel­a­tives and fam­i­ly friends. The far­thest lives 27 miles away, a 40 to 60-minute dri­ve. Occa­sion­al­ly — for $25 — her for­mer preschool teacher watch­es her for the day.

Jaelyn’s moth­er, Sheila Cus­tard, says the best she can man­age is to keep her daugh­ter safe and occu­pied while she, a sin­gle par­ent, works Mon­day through Fri­day as a pay­roll spe­cial­ist for a human resources man­age­ment com­pa­ny in Auro­ra, Colo. Like most par­ents who work out­side the home, her sched­ule does not change dur­ing the sum­mer months.

There is a sum­mer camp that serves Jaelyn’s age group less than two miles away. The $100 a week tuition is mod­est in com­par­i­son to many spe­cial­ty camps—day camp costs aver­age $199 a week and can go as high as $800 a week, accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Camp Asso­ci­a­tion. Still, the price is too high for Cus­tard, who is sad­dled with med­ical debt. Cus­tard would also have to dole out an addi­tion­al $50 a week for before and after care to accom­mo­date her 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. work schedule.

Since accept­ing a pro­mo­tion that came with a mod­est raise in March, Cus­tard is $86 over the income lim­it for the Col­orado Child Care Assis­tance Pro­gram, which would have cov­ered part or all of Jaelyn’s camp costs.

So, for now, Jae­lyn spends most days in the care of the 12-year-old daugh­ter of near­by fam­i­ly friends, who babysits Jae­lyn alone at their home while they, too, are away at work. Cus­tard checks in by phone sev­er­al times a day. For safe­ty rea­sons, the girls are for­bid­den to play out­side or walk to the neigh­bor­hood pool. They pass the time with tablets and smart­phones, or goof around danc­ing to YouTube music videos.

With­out [these fam­i­ly friends] I don’t know what I would have done,” says Cus­tard, who pays the tween babysit­ter what she can afford: $30 a week.

Keep­ing up with all of the dif­fer­ent places that I have to take her is so exhaust­ing,” Cus­tard adds, exas­per­a­tion evi­dent in her voice. It’s not just the finan­cial piece that over­whelms me. The men­tal stress also takes its toll.”

(This pool vis­it is a rare treat with mom. On sum­mer week­days, Jae­lyn is babysat by a local 12-year-old. For safe­ty rea­sons, they aren’t allowed to walk alone to the pool. Pho­to by Sebas­t­ian Fortuño)


Custard’s predica­ment is the norm for many work­ing par­ents in the U.S.: Two in three ele­men­tary-aged chil­dren have no stay-at-home par­ent, the aver­age school day is 6.5 hours and the aver­age work­day is 8 hours, mak­ing high-qual­i­ty child­care a year-round neces­si­ty. Sum­mer child­care is espe­cial­ly tricky — dif­fi­cult to find, expen­sive and mis­aligned with the sched­ules of work­ing par­ents, even those like Cus­tard who work the tra­di­tion­al 9 to 5.

A Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress (CAP) analy­sis of data from the After­school Alliance’s Amer­i­ca After 3PM sur­vey, released in 2018, con­clud­ed that a typ­i­cal fam­i­ly of four could expect to pay more than $3,000 for sum­mer pro­grams — about 20% of that family’s aver­age take-home pay for the summer.

That’s more than dou­ble the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices’ child­care afford­abil­i­ty thresh­old of 7%,” notes Cristi­na Novoa, a senior pol­i­cy ana­lyst for ear­ly child­hood pol­i­cy at CAP, a lib­er­al D.C. think tank. The sur­vey find­ings were eye-pop­ping, to say the least.”

Novoa was the lead researcher on last year’s analy­sis and a May 2019 CAP study that asked 1,000 par­ents of chil­dren ages 0 to 13 in all 50 states about sum­mer child­care. Three in four report­ed at least some dif­fi­cul­ty find­ing care and 57% said they had to make dif­fi­cult trade-offs, such as short­ened work hours or unpaid time off, that result­ed in sub­stan­tial income loss­es and, many felt, threat­ened their job security.

Costs and afford­abil­i­ty ranged great­ly by state. Wis­con­sin was the most afford­able: A fam­i­ly of four earn­ing the state medi­an income could expect to pay just over $1,400 for sum­mer care for two chil­dren, 9% of the aver­age income of a two-par­ent fam­i­ly in those months. The same fam­i­ly in Neva­da could expect to spend more than $6,700 on sum­mer child­care — more than half of its income over the sum­mer months.

Chil­dren left home alone are often scared and lone­ly,” says Marie Hartwell-Walk­er, Ed.D., a retired mar­riage and fam­i­ly ther­a­pist and con­trib­u­tor to Psy​ch​Cen​tral​.com. In order to keep them safe, their par­ents don’t allow them to be out play­ing with oth­er kids. As a result, many kids left alone don’t prop­er­ly devel­op the social skills that come from being engaged with their peers.”

They’re also at high­er risk of obe­si­ty, she says: When kids are inside and alone most of the time, many eat for enter­tain­ment and as a way to deal with the bore­dom and lone­li­ness they feel.” And research shows chil­dren often do not respond safe­ly in emer­gen­cies like fires.

We also know that when chil­dren are bored, they can become very inquis­i­tive in both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ways,” says Mimi LeClair, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chica­go, whose 20-plus Chica­go-area clubs cur­rent­ly pro­vide low-cost sum­mer pro­gram­ming for near­ly 20,000. There is so much risk for our young peo­ple to become vic­tims — or per­pe­tra­tors — of vio­lence, espe­cial­ly if they’re left unat­tend­ed for extend­ed peri­ods.” Experts also say a lack of expo­sure to some aca­d­e­m­ic pro­gram­ming over the sum­mer can widen an exist­ing achieve­ment gap for chil­dren in low­er-income fam­i­lies.


Kim­ber­ly Willis Green lives in sub­ur­ban Hen­ry Coun­ty, Ga., and is a divorced moth­er of three boys (14, 13 and 9). She says that par­ents, like her, of chil­dren with spe­cial needs face par­tic­u­lar sum­mer care chal­lenges. In 2013, her son Capers was abrupt­ly released from a spe­cial-needs sum­mer camp. He has mild cere­bral pal­sy and Lennox-Gas­taut syn­drome, a rare form of epilepsy.

I thought I had a [sum­mer] plan for him that week, and basi­cal­ly it fell apart after two days,” recalls Green. I was told he could not stay because the program’s staff was not ade­quate­ly trained to admin­is­ter his emer­gency seizure med­ica­tion Dia­s­tat, which is sim­i­lar to an EpiPen.”

Green, who vol­un­teers with the non­prof­it Par­ent 2 Par­ent of Geor­gia, a parental advo­ca­cy group for chil­dren with spe­cial needs, says many com­pete for a minis­cule num­ber of slots in inclu­sive” sum­mer pro­grams. The few who get their chil­dren in, she says, are often sad­dled with high­er fees, usu­al­ly for extra staffers or oth­er spe­cial­ized support.

Green’s mid­dle son, Kyle, has Asperg­er syn­drome, a con­di­tion on the autism spec­trum. Despite record num­bers of diag­noses in recent years, she says many sum­mer pro­grams are still ill-equipped.

I call it the invis­i­ble dis­abil­i­ty,’” Green says. He strug­gles with social inter­ac­tion and some behav­ioral issues. And because of those issues, kids like him are [often] dis­missed from camp.”


Nina LeMieux, a sin­gle mom of three in the sleepy town of Barre, Vt., shared an emo­tion­al sto­ry with Ver­mont leg­is­la­tors in April. When the child­care facil­i­ty her three chil­dren attend­ed abrupt­ly closed with only 20 days notice, it set off a chain reac­tion. LeMieux had to resign from her full-time state job with ben­e­fits to stay home with them, then ages 6, 4 and 5 months. She found replace­ment care in six months, but lost her sav­ings, much of her retire­ment mon­ey and, final­ly, her apartment.

Tes­ti­mo­ny from LeMieux and oth­ers helped inspire the state leg­is­la­ture to pass a bud­get that includ­ed $7.4 mil­lion in child­care invest­ments, includ­ing a boost for the Child Care Finan­cial Assis­tance Pro­gram (CCFAP), which sub­si­dizes both year-round and sum­mer care.

LeMieux now works a tem­po­rary, part-time posi­tion with no ben­e­fits or paid time off with the state of Ver­mont. This sum­mer, she’ll receive a CCFAP sub­sidy for child­care — but her out-of-pock­et costs remain $165 for her three chil­dren, 31% of her month­ly gross income. She’s con­sid­er­ing mov­ing her old­er kids to a school dis­trict clos­er to their father’s home for more child­care options.

The child­care quandary has emerged as a hot talk­ing point among many of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial race con­tenders, includ­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (Mass.) and Sen. Kamala Har­ris (Calif.), who have pro­posed sweep­ing fed­er­al inter­ven­tions. In Feb­ru­ary, Sen. Pat­ty Mur­ray (D‑Wash.) and Rep. Bob­by Scott (D‑Va.) rein­tro­duced the Child Care for Work­ing Fam­i­lies Act.

The mea­sure, orig­i­nal­ly intro­duced in 2017, would guar­an­tee child­care assis­tance for low-income and mid­dle-class fam­i­lies with chil­dren younger than 13. The bill would ensure that child­care cost no more than 7% of their income. Sup­port­ers are opti­mistic about its fate with a Demo­c­ra­t­ic House majority.

CAP’s report also cites oth­er poten­tial solu­tions, such as the expan­sion of the fed­er­al Child Care and Devel­op­ment Block Grant pro­gram, which pro­vides fund­ing to states for after-school or sum­mer care.

Novoa says 21st Cen­tu­ry Com­mu­ni­ty Learn­ing Cen­ters (21st CCLCs), the only fed­er­al­ly fund­ed com­mu­ni­ty-based after-school and sum­mer pro­grams, are an under­uti­lized resource that could be tapped. CCLCs cur­rent­ly serve 2 mil­lion chil­dren year-round and more than 300,000 over the sum­mer. But Novoa believes that is just a frac­tion of what is need­ed,” not­ing that 21 mil­lion youth are eligible.

Chica­go moth­er Wan­da Noyes agrees that pol­i­cy­mak­ers should look at expand­ing the 21st CCLCs, as well as sub­si­diz­ing afford­able pro­grams like the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Amer­i­ca. Noyes’ sev­en chil­dren grew up” in Boys & Girls clubs, which kept them out of trou­ble and engaged aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly and social­ly, she says. Two of her chil­dren, one a ris­ing high school senior and the oth­er a soon-to-be col­lege fresh­man, com­plet­ed a tran­sit author­i­ty intern­ship and a phar­ma­cy tech train­ing pro­gram, respec­tive­ly, that they land­ed through the pro­grams. Now the direc­tor of the same branch her chil­dren attend­ed, she says she is con­vinced America’s child­care acces­si­bil­i­ty prob­lem won’t change until those in pow­er make a point of it.

There should be a viable place for all of our kids to go, to be safe and to learn, instead of get­ting into trou­ble and being out on the streets,” she says. It should be everybody’s busi­ness to make this a priority.”

Chan­dra Thomas Whit­field is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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