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On Parenting
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 01/03/2012

School’s back in session, but not for long

Uncle.

Was that a l-o-n-g school break or is it just me?


Ready for your kids to return to school? (Susan Biddle - For The Washington Post)
Yes, it could have been worse. The weather was often welcoming. But, at least in my tiny house, four big personalities trampling upon one another for 10 days frayed everybody’s patience.

You could hear the collective expletive when the e-mail arrived reminding the parents in my daughter’s pre-school co-op that we were to “enjoy” Monday as a holiday, too.

Not that I’m saying we all don’t love parenting. I’m just saying ... (see Petula Dvorak’s recent examination of the complicated feeling parents have about their status here.)

The mixed feelings that Dvorak recorded (the vast majority of parents said they would still have kids if they could do it all over again) and that many of us have felt during these winter break days reminded me of the attention getting results of a 2008 study that claimed parents experience more depression and emotional distress than non-parents.

When the report appeared in the American Sociological Association magazine “Contexts” it was considered ground-breaking because it flew “in the face of our cultural dogma that proclaims it impossible for people to achieve an emotionally fulfilling and healthy life unless they become parents.”

What was lost in much of the coverage that followed was that author and sociologist Robin Simon pointed out that it wasn’t always the children themselves who over-burdened parents, but the lack of institutional support for parenting.

This brings me back to the school break. Or, more specifically, the school calendar.

In theory, school holidays (and teacher conference days and teacher enrichment days) are a necessary break for teachers and a wonderful opportunity for unstructured family time. In practice, they are almost weekly exercises in parental scrambling.

During the break, I ran into friends who both work full-time at demanding Washington-type jobs and asked them how they managed all the school closings. Through a combination of sitters, individual vacation days and frustrating work-from-home stretches, they said.

That’s typical and it’s usually neither affordable nor fun. For the parents or the kids.

There’s some debate about the origins of the current school calendar. It doesn’t really matter if it was designed to suit earlier agricultural demands (as President Obama has said) or the elite of long-ago or the single-breadwinning households of the middle of the last century.

What matters is that it no longer reflects the reality of working parents. On the DCPS calendar, I counted four school closings and one early dismissal in the next seven weeks. This, after many of us burned through vacation days to accommodate the winter break and are still facing the extends-through-a-second-Monday spring break in early April.

The problem with trying to find reliable alternatives for children during these frequent closings — alternatives that do not involve work-from-home harried parents, or computer games at a parent’s office — is that the school calendar corresponds to no other working arrangement known to man. Sitters who work other jobs are not free on the random early-dismissal Friday or conference-day Mondays.

Putting asides the related debates over school start times, year-round schedules and the length of the day (the public policy blog Greater Greater Washington recently explored this issue), the issue of excessive breaks on the academic calendar might be easily addressed. There could be system-wide solutions involving school-based opt-in enrichment or play-based alternatives.

In other words, designing some institutional support for the reality of modern parents. With it, parents would probably jump up on that happiness scale. Kids would, too. (Adults aren’t the only ones who crave structure and reliability.)

And with some affordable, reliable, predictable options, maybe we all wouldn’t be so strung out at the end of what was supposed to be a “break.”

What do you think of the school calendar? How do you manage the breaks and days off? What might be a workable alternative?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 01/03/2012

Tags:  school calendar, school break, school holidays

 
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