- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Jessica Holmes has wonderful memories of her childhood summers. A self-admitted "Army brat," she spent time in many other cities around the country before settling down in the Washington area as a young teen. But even though the scenery changed, her recollections of long, unscheduled summer days spent outside with friends were constant.

"I remember going out the front door, hopping on my bike and not returning until the sun set," says the baby boomer, who lives near Falls Church and adds that her three children will have very different memories of their much more scheduled summers.

The lazy freedom of unstructured summer days may have gone the way of stay-at-home moms and "Leave It to Beaver" neighborhoods, but experts say that by instilling safety rules and planning ahead, parents still can give their children memorable summers.

"It is certainly the case that there is a much higher percentage of parents who both work, and that has changed the way that families spend their summers," says Suzanne Bianchi, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park who specializes in family demography.

"But we have this nostalgic view of how wonderful it was when we were growing up and how awful it is for kids now, and I suspect that isn't true. Kids, especially as they get older, just want to be where their friends are, and if their friends are in camp, then that's where they want to be," Ms. Bianchi says.

Ms. Bianchi also has information to assuage parents' guilt about their work-filled summers. Parents don't have to feel they're cheating their children of idyllic summers, she says. In time studies, she discovered that parents spend about the same amount of time interacting with their children as they did 30 years ago. Because families are significantly smaller today, that translates into an increase of time with each child, she says.

The endless summer

Mrs. Holmes enjoyed the summers of her youth, when one day merged into the next for long, lazy months. But she wonders whether the 21/2-month break fits the lifestyles of today's families. Two of her three children attend Timber Lane Elementary School near Falls Church, which three years ago went to a year-round calendar. Three intersession breaks are scheduled throughout the year, and the summer vacation is shortened to five weeks.

"Five weeks gives the kids oodles of downtime," says Mrs. Holmes, who for the past two years has headed the Timber Lane PTA. "I've had traditional vacations and now this modified calendar, and I can tell you that the consensus of the moms at the pool is that by the end of the summer, everyone is eager to get back to school."

Parents may remember fondly the freedom of their summers, but too much free time is not necessarily a good thing, parenting experts say. The way to create happy summers is to make them meaningful, says Patricia Webbink, a Bethesda-based psychologist who specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling. Ms. Webbink is concerned about latchkey children who face a summer of long, boring days alone.

"A big problem that's just getting worse is that too many children left without anything to do are just becoming more and more electrified sitting all day in front of computers, video games and television," she warns. "It's important to provide some type of structured experience so children don't have a passive summer."

Ms. Webbink says children need a change of pace in the summer and parents need to be sure the program they choose is fun with "time to unwind."

Summer programs are not a one-size-fits-all solution because some children thrive in an academic environment and others need programs that put an emphasis on other areas, such as sports, she says. "The key is to find a program that can be individualized to meet your child's need."

The world has changed from the days that parents remember, Ms. Webbink says. "Today, it's not safe for kids to roam around the neighborhood as they did when we were growing up."

Staying safe in summer

Summers mean hours of unsupervised play in the outdoors, and that translates into an annual increase in accidents and injuries. The medical community refers to the upsurge in activity as the "trauma season."

"It's more dangerous today as well," says Genny O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the District-based National Safe Kids Campaign. "There are more cars out there, and kids go a lot faster on in-line skates than they did on the old-fashioned roller skates."

The good news, she says, is that safety awareness has increased, and protective gear, such as helmets and pads, has improved. Plus, she says, the popularity of extreme sports, such as in-line skating and skateboarding, has made protective gear once disdained as uncool very hip.

The bad news is that with more parents working, injuries often occur when no one is home to help.

"Parents need to make sure that their children spend the majority of their summer time in supervised programs," Ms. O'Donnell says. "They also need to check the qualifications of the people running those programs. Do they know first aid and CPR? Do they have a good plan for emergencies?"

Parental foresight and planning also can minimize the risk of child molestation or abduction, a risk that increases in the summer months, says Nancy McBride, director of education of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and former head of the organization's Florida chapter.

Not hit by a truck

"This isn't a topic that we like to think about, and many parents are afraid to discuss it with their children because they don't want to terrorize them," Mrs. McBride says, "but the best way to protect our children is to give them clear safety rules."

Mrs. McBride says parents have no problem teaching their children to look both ways before crossing the street. "We don't then go into detail about how they'll be squashed by an 18-wheeler if they don't heed our advice," she says. "It's just as important to tell your children to never go anywhere alone, to stay out of public restrooms and to never go anywhere with someone that they don't know."

Parents also need to check the background and credentials of anyone who has access to their children, Mrs. McBride says.

"We tend to lower our standards maybe not even consciously when it come to people like coaches who volunteer their time to coach or help our children," she says. "We often don't ask any questions about people in extracurricular activities. We just assume that if they volunteer, they must be good people."

Parents shouldn't be afraid to ask camp and summer-program administrators whether they have done a background check on their counselors and staff. This should include a federal as well as state search for any criminal past.

The cardinal rule of safe summer play is never to go anywhere alone, Mrs. McBride says. "That's where the opportunity is," she says. "Even if it's familiar territory, there's no reason for a child to be outside for any significant period alone."

Age is not an automatic protection. Most parents vigilantly supervise young children but loosen oversight as their child matures. Mrs. McBride says that "children aged 11 to 17 are the most victimized segment of the population. Middle-school girls are especially vulnerable."

The very qualities that parents try to instill in their children politeness, obedience, deference to adult authority can be used by child molesters and abductors unless parents arm their children with safety strategies, says Ric Bentz, a detective who supervises the police department's Sensitive Crimes Unit in Kenosha, Wis.

"Knowledge is power, and parents can empower their children by teaching them common-sense safety tips and then playing 'what if' games with them," Mr. Bentz says. The father of two college-age boys, he says he still plays the game with them.

When his boys were young, he had them write all their friends' names and numbers in the family phone book, and over the years, they kept that list current, he says. "If you do it when they're young, they're honored to be part of the family phone book, and you will have a list if ever they can't be found."

Mr. Bentz, who recently co-wrote the book "Street Smarts for Kids: What Parents Must Know to Keep Their Children Safe," says the question he is asked most frequently is: When it is safe to leave a child home alone?

"There isn't a legal or chronological answer to that question. It's a question of maturity," he says. "Play the 'what if' game: 'What if someone comes to the door when you're alone?' If they don't get the right answer, they're not ready to be left home alone."

Summers should be fun, and childhood should be safe, and the two are not mutually exclusive, Mr. Bentz says. "But parents need to prepare their children. Safety is something you work on every day of your life."

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