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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

How to kick off your search

Check with the school counseling office. Most counseling offices have a bulletin board of job postings and internship opportunities for middle and high school students.
Use your network. Friends, neighbors, and work colleagues can be a rich source of summer job ideas.
• Search online parents' websites. Many towns and cities now have parenting websites that offer plenty of summer possibilities.   ParentsConnect:Omaha, for example, offers listings for camps in the Omaha area, and San Francisco's SFKids.org, features an entire section on youth employment.
• Follow your child's interests. Have an aspiring vet? Check in for opportunities at your local SPCA. Your soccer enthusiast will likely make a great coach at a pee-wee soccer camp. A bookworm might be happier working at the local library or bookstore, and an aspiring actor could find a role in summer stock.

Here, then, are some of the best outlets to keep your tween or teen from descending into a summertime slump.

Summer camps

Your tween or teen may consider summer camps beneath contempt, but there are fantastic camp options for this age group — many designed to appeal to teen passions. San Francisco's Bay Area Video Coalition, for example, offers a digital media camp for teens, featuring classes in video and digital music production. While summer camp price tags are often high, many areas have low-cost nonprofit camp options and some camps offer financial aid. For camp ideas in your area, check out the American Camp Association's "Find a Camp" directory.

Camps are also a terrific place for tweens and teens to land summer jobs. Check the websites of your local YMCA and other summer camps to see if they offer counselor positions or counselor-in-training (C.I.T.) programs, or check out the American Camp Association's job board.

Wilderness programs

To combat Nature Deficit Disorder, give your child a wilderness education at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) or Outward Bound, which teach kids leadership and other skills, including backpacking and wilderness safety. (Both programs are pricey, but offer financial aid.)

Museum jobs and internships

Housing a young art enthusiast? Go no further in your summer job search than your local museum. The Museum of Science in Boston, for example, has a summer internship program for 14- to 18-year-olds. And the Art Institute of Chicago offers a range of teen programs, include internships and classes for teens.

Volunteer positions

Volunteering builds job skills and often leads to a paying position down the line. Even if a volunteer job doesn't ever result in a paycheck, it allows kids to contribute to their community and learn responsibility, while building a resume. The Phoenix Children's Hospital offers programs for tweens and teens who want to learn more about working in health care. There's also a candy striper program for 13- to 15-year-olds, and an Summer Intensive Volunteer program for kids 16 and up.

For teens craving a far-flung adventure, the Amigos program places them in countries in North America, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, where they live with a local family and work in the community.

Government programs

City mayor's offices often provide summer programs for young people. The city of Seattle's Parks and Recreation department has a range of youth training, volunteer, and paid job opportunities. In San Francisco, kids 14 to 18 can work side by side with police officers through the Law Enforcement Cadet Program.

Summer classes

Whether it's a class in astronomy, glassblowing, or CPR, summer school will open your child's mind to new information and fresh skills. Many colleges now offer summer programs for tweens and teens, which help steer kids in the direction of college. As Kate Shatzkin points out: "Summer is a wonderful time for dreaming, and taking classes on a college campus will help your child imagine her future as a college student."

In Dallas, the CHAMPS summer camp at the University of Texas is designed for middle school students interested in computer science. Many community colleges, like San Francisco's City College, have summer classes specifically geared to middle and high school students. Some museums, like New York's Museum of Modern Art, gives free classes for teens in everything from making junk art to building robots.

DIY summer jobs

Still coming up short with job or camp opportunities? It may be time your child starts a business of her own. A regular babysitting, dog walking, or lawn mowing gig can earn your tween or teen both money and job skills. If your child has mastered a special skill or knowledge-base — be it Spanish or math or drawing — he can teach classes or be a tutor. Have a tech-savvy child? She can help businesses create a web page or Facebook presence or organize digital photos into online photo albums. Even small or short-term jobs, like helping someone move or washing a neighbor's car, build skills and experience. As psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini, who offers additional ideas on her website, points out, "Nothing builds a teen's confidence like a summer job."

Next: 10 ways to keep your child reading this summer

Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/21/2012:
"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... "
03/19/2012:
"this is great heads up for parents for planing summer "
03/19/2012:
"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! "
03/19/2012:
"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!!! "
03/19/2012:
"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. "
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