NOW THAT the icicles are growing under the eaves and the kids are spending their weekends avoiding homework and putting off their science fair project, it's time to get your life in order.
We're talking about summer, here. It's time, we fear, to get your plans shaped up and your downpayments in for camp, or backpacking, or trekking through Europe -- or whatever the kids want to do once school ends.
For one thing, if you try to do this from scratch, it may take you until the middle of June to look into catalogues, send off for brochures and interview the kid down the street who took that neat horseback/camping trip in Colorado last year.
But this weekend (and again in March), we can get you at least two dozen camp directors under one roof, and a staff of people who are experts at arranging mind-expandng summer experiences for the under-20 set.
The session this weekend, at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Bethesda on Saturday, is sponsored by Tips on Trips and Camps, an organization started in 1971 by mothers looking for alternatives to the usual camping scene for their children. (The American Camping Association will hold similar fairs, with about 90 camps represented, March 30 and 31, in Alexandria and Bethesda respectively.)
The Tips program is free for all participants, but if a camper signs up, the camp pays Tips a small percentage fee. Tips earns this fee by setting up dozens of these meetings around the country, and sending inspectors to the camps "at least once every three years," says spokesman Nancy Ludwig. "We only pick programs we'd feel comfortable sending our own children to," she adds.
The season's first Tips meeting in this area was held two weeks ago at the Bethesda Community Center, where Tips personnel greeted parents and potential campers at the door and had them fill out forms to determine interests.
Then the Tips people went to work trying to match the youths with possible camp experiences -- anything from biking for a month to learning French on the Riviera, to touring college campuses in the Northeast, to backpacking in Colorado.
The Tips people trotted campers and their parents around to meet camp directors, and also gave them brochures and applications from other camps whose directors weren't present.
Here's how it might work for you: Say your 15-year-old is a third-year French student who loves the language. The Tips people would probably point you toward representatives of language immersion programs, like the International Cultural Institute.
That's a two-year-old outfit which drills students in the finer points of conversational French while putting them up in a chateau in the south of France for 12 days. There, they "adjust to the culture," said a spokesman at the recent fair, "and learn to do little things, like make a phone call."
Then each child goes solo into a French home for three weeks, where there's "a child of the same age in the family who wants to have an American come and stay," said the spokesman. It's cultural immersion on a natural level, "and their French really improves," she said.
Maybe it's not your child's French you want to improve, but tennis, or scuba diving. Or perhaps your youngster wants to use this summer to master the computer, or ballet. There are camps to develop all these skills, and many will be sending their directors and slide shows to this Saturday's Tips meeting or to the American Camping Association fairs.
That gives you a chance, as Bill Cole of the American Camping Association put it, to "meet with the directors, and see if you're comfortable with them and the amount of structure they offer. Is this the kind of person you want to be responsible for your child this summer?"
Betweenthe Tips session and the larger fairs sponsored by the American Camping Association, which has been accrediting camps for the last 75 years, "there's a camp to fit every pocket book, including some day camps from the Washington area," says Cole.
At Tips on Trips and Camps, although it represents a number of traditional activities for all ages, the emphasis seems to be on razzle-dazzle adventures for the teenager -- particularly the teen from the two-income family.
"There used to be just these broad-interest camps where you went as a kid, and came back as a teenager to be a counselor," says Ludwig.
But with vast increases in the number of two-income families and single parents, it's becoming obvious that "keeping a teenager occupied during the day is very important," says Ludwig.
So Tips has gathered directors from places like Longacre Farm -- a working farm in Pennsylvania where kids learn to cook for a crowd, birth pigs and build hen houses; or Trailmarks -- which puts up campers in college dorms, giving teens a chance to tour campuses.
Then there are backpacking or biking tours of New England, the West, or several countries in Europe, designed for a teen who "probably doesn't enjoy traveling with his parents, but could get a lot out of a trip with other teens," says one director.
Picking and choosing among these various adventures is a matter of mixing available money and the child's interests, degree of commitment, and need for structure.
"If you're a farily low-key, loose kind of family," says Cole, "your child might feel uncomfortable in a highly structured program, and vice versa."
Similarly, if your motive for sending the child to camp doesn't match the goals of the camp, you may be setting him up for a bad time. "We're not a babysitting service," says one camp director. "If you just want to get rid of your kids for the summer, don't send them here."
If you want your child to learn French, but he just wants t play tennis, it probably will waste your money to enroll him in a language immersion program, for instance.
The Tips people, as well as those running the ACA camp fairs in March, should be able to steer you around most of these obstacles. But the final factor for a good camping experience, say the experts, should come from the camper himself -- enthusiasm.
And bringing your camper to a fair, where he can see the slides and ask questions, should either generate that needed excitement or show you clearly that something that looks good on paper falls flat face to face. Chances are, though, that the fair will have some choice that will turn him on.
Then he can get back to avoiding his homework, and putting off his science fair project. FINDING THE CAMPS
TIPS ON TRIPS AND CAMPS -- Meets Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m., St. Andrew's Episcopal School, 8935 Bradmoor Dr., Bethesda. Free. 530-3313.
AMERICAN CAMPING ASSOCIATION -- Will hold camp fairs on March 30 at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, and on March 31 at Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, both from noon to 5. Free. Phone 362-4360 for more information.