- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

In movies and memories, summer is the season of lazy days and lightning bugs, Popsicles and playgrounds.

In reality, it’s the season of cooperation. Camp can only fill in so many days. The rest of the time it is “you take mine/I’ll take yours” season for many moms. In other words, without that village of kid swappers, you’d never get a minute of peace or a trip to the store without your three little ones.

During summer, the deals being made rival those done hours before the Major League Baseball trade deadline. Swap the pool on Thursday for haircut on Friday? Sold. Trade camp drop-off for a dentist appointment on Monday? It’s a deal.

Never have so many depended on the kindness of so many more.

“Summer is absolutely cooperation season,” says Jessica McFadden, who lives in Silver Spring with her children, ages 5 and 3. “I don’t hire baby sitters often; I share with other moms.”

Ms. McFadden writes a blog, A Parent in Silver Spring (www. aparentinsilverspring.com), and says without the help of her friends and neighbors, barely a word would get written. Informal arrangements are a lifesaver for her, as well as other parents who may have flexible, work-from-home jobs that still necessitate some coverage but not enough for full time — and pricey — day care or camp, she says.

“We have an informal honor system that helps each other out,” Ms. McFadden says. “We can’t rely on school and camp for personal appointments or the progression of our careers. If you’re working fewer than 30 hours a week, camp is probably not going to be your domain in the summer. But still, you’ve got to keep your kids busy. This is the only way to get through summer.”

Ms. McFadden, whose blog features activities and special events for Montgomery County parents, has a go-to list of places to play on the days she is responsible for more than her two children. In the rotation: free morning movies at many area movie theaters; nature centers; and spray parks, where her children are entertained for hours by running through fountains.

“Spray parks are great if you have many kids with you because you don’t have to worry about kids like you would if they were swimming at a pool,” she says.

Devra Renner, who lives in Centreville and is the co-author of the book “Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most & Raise Happier Kids,” says she has been doing the summer parent trade-off for years. Her children are now 9 and 13, but swapping is still crucial. Tweens may need less supervision, but they still need to be shuttled to where they need to go.

Ms. Renner says on many summer days, the schedule evolves into a progressive play date. The kids start at one neighborhood house, then after a few hours the group moves to another house. That creates a window for her to work, run errands and cross things off her own never-ending to-do list.

For parents who may not be natural social butterflies, are new in town or live in a neighborhood with few children, the support network might not form so organically. It is possible to build that summer support network, it just takes a bit more work, Ms. Renner says.

If you need to create a network, start by “mining natural resources,” she says, such as the children your children like to play with from school, church or sports teams. Approach the other parents with a one-time proposition, such as you’ll take the kids Wednesday morning if she can watch them all for a few hours on Friday.

“Most likely, people will say ‘I’m glad you asked,’” she says.

If the network is up and running, one basic rule to keep in mind: The best arrangements are reciprocal.

“Swapping works well when neither family is keeping score,” she says. “But at the same time, you don’t want to be taken for granted and be someone’s calendar doormat.”

For tweens, summer is also a great time to learn the independence that comes from a looser schedule and less-structured supervision, says Lenore Skenazy, author of the book “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry.”

In the 1970s and 1980s — when today’s parents were growing up — there was often less parental supervision, which was not necessarily a bad thing, says Ms. Skenazy, who lives in New York City with her 11- and 13-year-old sons.

“Summer traditionally is the season of the free-range kid,” she says. “There is no homework, schedules are looser. When I think of a really great memory of summer, it is not of swimming lessons or SAT prep classes. It is recalling the freedom that came with summer.”

That freedom has been chipped away over the years as media reports of child abductions and other unfortunate incidents have intensified. Ms. Skenazy points out that crime stats show children today are “at least as safe as we were in the 1970s.”

“We shouldn’t keep our kids under lock and key,” she says. “The best way to keep them safe is to get out in the world and take care of themselves.”

Ms. Skenazy is not suggesting a 5-year-old be left to make his own lunch or spend the day alone at the pool. What she is saying is children can learn valuable lessons by being allowed certain freedoms. There is no set age for what is appropriate — your fourth-grader might be wise and mature while your sixth-grader hasn’t proven he can handle crossing the street.

But think about what some older elementary-school and middle-school kids can learn if they have some latitude, Ms. Skenazy says. Riding bikes to a friend’s house, checking books out of the library with their own card, mustering the courage to jump off the high dive — these are all life-skill lessons that come from summer fun.

• Karen Goldberg Goff can be reached at kgoff@washingtontimes.com.

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