British summers are short. But the school summer holidays are long. So this week, every parent of school-aged children in the UK (aside from Scotland where the holidays start earlier) is staring intently at a grid of summer childcare/amusements/trips with a pencil, a rubber and an air of angst.
Summer holidays are poignant markers of time passing. Sports day and prize-giving followed by the putting away of school bags and uniform give you a tingle of nostalgia in the very moment it happens. In contrast to the forced fun of new year, which is just pressure to drink excessively.
I have a romantic 1970s idea that the kids should all just run feral in local fields for the whole of the summer holidays. But we live in London zone two.
The fields are building sites, the roads thunder and anyone not hovering over their child is begging for an intervention from social services.
The other day, a man was seen idling against a lamp post near our swings and slides. Our gloriously efficient head of the PTA was immediately on the phone to the various mothers scattered around and alerting them. A bus arrived shortly and the oblivious chap headed off for his dinner.
Which leaves eight weeks to hover over our three small kids. I've trawled the parenting talkboards and the advice is clear. I'll summarise to save you the trouble of reading a few hundred web pages of mum chat:
- Your children being children passes very fast in a beautiful haze of garden sprinklers, so plan a glorious summer of joy and revel in every precious moment.
- It's a long, boring, expensive nightmare that is totally incompatible with modern employment, so pay for as many holiday clubs as you can possibly afford and push on through to September.
Both are clearly true. On which basis, this is my thinking:
- Don't drift into it without a plan assuming it'll come together. Save yourself your own screaming tantrum and build the darn grid.
- Do book a proper summer holiday. We used not to do this as we go away at half-term. But two solid months of Facebook pictures of other people's beautiful breakfast views, infinity pools and white-sandy coves will eventually break you.
Do book a few weeks of special activities – art, drama or activity clubs to keep them out and about, ideally with a few mates doing the same thing. I dream of them being old enough for a residential one.
- Don't chuck the whole budget at stuff that is short-lived but very expensive. This is easily identified by the likelihood of them meeting a character they see on TV: Peppa Pig, Elsa and Anna, Nemo the Fish or Georgina the Giraffe. You can easily blow a whole week of summer camp on four hours during which there is a meltdown to rival the Russian nuclear problem.
- Do indulge in as many play dates as possible. This can feel like a game of 3D chess as every family is moving around too but tracking your neighbours is what the grid is for.
- Do leave space for nothing: parks, swings, fountains, picnics. But not too much space.
- And take loads of pictures of sunny sprinkler days. That way you will remember the summer as utterly glorious and forget the bits when you threw them all in out into the garden in the pouring rain just to spare your mind.
Christine Armstrong is a contributing editor of Management Today, author of Power Mums (interviews with high-profile mothers) and founder of www.villas4kids.com. She can be found on Twitter at @hannisarmstrong.