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Summer planning for tweens and teens

Too old for camp. Too young to get a job. What to do? If you start early and know where to look, there's plenty out there to keep older kids happy and busy during summer break.

By Connie Matthiessen

It's a parent's summertime nightmare. While you're at work all day, your tween or teen is at home. Alone. With nothing to do. So what does she do? She turns your house into party central.

This nightmare is exactly what happened to psychologist John Duffy's clients, a family in a well-heeled Chicago suburb. "Every day when the parents went to work, their two teenagers invited all their friends over and had drinking parties," Duffy says. "Some days there were as many as 100 kids at the house." The couple didn't learn about the parties until halfway through the summer, when another parent alerted them.

For kids, there's nothing more delicious than summer vacation: two-plus months free from school. But for parents of older kids, the summer months can be fraught with very real hazards: from drugs and alcohol to ill-advised risk-taking to auto accidents. (Most deadly car crashes involving teens age 13 to 19 occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to the American Automobile Association).

Other summer perils are less dangerous, but alarming just the same: the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) reports that kids lose significant ground academically when they’re not engaged in summertime educational activities. NSLA also found that kids gain weight two to three times faster during the summer months, likely because of inactivity and poor food choices.

For younger kids there's camp. But for millions of tweens and teens? They exist in a summertime no-man’s-land: too old for lanyards and too young to get a job. Even for older teens, the job market is bleak. "In many cases, camp counseling jobs and other jobs traditionally held by teens are being filled by college students and recent college graduates," says Gabriel Hanzel-Sello, a counselor at Enterprise for High School Students, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps teens learn job skills and find employment.

So how is an idle teen supposed to pass those summer months? If you're lucky, he can visit grandma for a week or two. Maybe you'll take a family vacation. And sure, a couple of weeks of unstructured downtime is welcome after the pressures of a long school year. But that still leaves weeks, and more weeks, to fill. The best innoculation against summertime shenanigans? Duffy advises: keep them busy! Plus, by finding inspired activities, your child will develop invaluable skills for high school, college, and beyond.

Happily, summer opportunities for tweens and teens are out there. The trick to homing in on the right ones is to get started early. Registration for most summer jobs and internships starts sooner than you might think — as early as January and February. Kate Shatzkin of NSLA suggests asking your child's teacher for ideas during the spring parent-teacher conference. "The teacher can talk about areas your child needs to work on, and skills essential for the next grade," she says. "She can also tell you which subjects make your child come alive in class — because she has a perspective on your child's interests that you don't have — as well as ideas for classes and other resources to encourage those interests."

Next page: How to kick off your search

Connie Matthiessen is a San Francisco writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Health, San Francisco, WebMD, and other publications. She has three children (who provide a close-up perspective on great and not-so-great schools) and two chubby cats.

Comments from readers

"First of all, there needs to be a Teen Babysitter place or called Teen Cafe/Game Place, hangout place for them to go to while the parents are away... There are too many lonely and bored teens out there....This society surely caters to young children, where they have a chuckecheese for them to let their energies out, they have camps for kids too... I don't understand if parents saved their money, surely they could afford to bring them to a local camp or even have their teen be a Camp Counselor if old enough... "
"this is great heads up for parents for planing summer "
"REALLY? The parents of these kids couldn't figure out that there were 100 drinking teens and tweens in their house until someone told them? They have to be pretty dense. I can't believe there were no signs. This is a classic example of bad parenting, and just not paying attention. It's the lack of attention that causes the problems. There should be a test before becoming a parent. It's just not that hard! "
"I like these ideas that are listed. I for sure want to keep my son active this summer. He will be turning 13 soon and I do not want him to be bored at all. Great stuff!!! "
"I sent this article to my sister in NC for her grandchildren. Hopefully there's a similar program there; if not then the suggestions are there to read. "