When I was growing up, the school year began in September, after Labor Day, and came to a close some time in June. I grew up in Baltimore, and I remember those summer days at school very well, as we did not have air conditioning, and the image and feeling of those greyish-pink textured plastic seats stuck to my legs as I tried to focus on final exams is forever burned into my memory! Summers seemed so much hotter and more humid, probably because we did not have air conditioning, and so that season was more vividly demarcated in my mind. I also remember playing in my parents’ back yard with my siblings and cousin Alex, with a garden hose and faded red dolphin-shaped sprinkler attachment, the blazing hot pavement scorching the soles of our bare feet. A few summers we were sent to day camps, but we much preferred to stay home and relish in the long days and freedom from scheduling.
Here in the Atlanta area, the school calendar is a bit different, with school starting and ending so much earlier. It feels strange to start a new school year in the heat of summer, but each region has its own culture, rituals, and traditions. Like many parents, I am challenged by how to keep my child’s mind and body occupied during the long summer break since I don’t have much time off. Now that my son is 14, he can safely stay home alone, but he is still too young to work. We don’t have funds for vacations, music or other specialty camps, so we have to be creative to make that time work for us–with improvised language lessons (Russian and Finnish), dog training classes, gardening, hikes, bike riding, day trips, taking photographs, and other art projects. Try borrowing the Georgia State Parks Pass, Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts Museum Pass, or the Go Fish Pass from DCPL for family outings, or attend summer events during the Library’s Vacation Reading Program. Many organizations offer volunteer opportunities and internships for older teens, and some offer family volunteering with parental supervision. Communication with friends mostly happens through Snapchat or Facebook. Without family nearby or close friends with whom to spend time, despite these activities, the summer can sometimes seem like a long, barren stretch.
Many families plan elaborate summer vacations or fill their children’s breaks with robotics classes, intensive science, math, or reading classes, swim meets, music or art training, organized sports, internships, or other camps and activities.
While it is a frequent habit to bathe the past in a golden nostalgic light, a quick google search will soon reveal that childhood was for most far from an idyllic realm for any child around the world through history. For so many today, being a child in the twentieth century is indeed a great place and time to live, grow, and to be loved and cherished. I am sure that so many children throughout the world today would be thrilled to be allowed to attend school year-round and to be relatively free from fear and violence.
Out of curiosity, I began to wonder what exactly is the history of summer breaks for children as well as the evolution of how children are treated as members of society throughout history. I have read about child abuse and neglect being the common lot of children up until the twentieth century. If you click on this link, (readers, beware: this article is not for the faint of heart!) you can read an article about the cross-cultural evolution of childrearing through the ages and around the world. We are very fortunate that our societies are constantly evolving as is our desire to be more self-aware, responsible, empathic and compassionate parents and human beings. Not so long ago, even in the United States, many children were obligated to work to contribute to their families’ income, and to take care of their parents and siblings, whether in urban or rural settings. According to historians at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum recreating an 1830’s New England farming village, most farm children went to school between the months of December and March, taking a break until May and then attending school again between May and August. In the spring and fall seasons, children and adults worked together to help with planting the fields and harvesting.
In the 1800s, urban schools in the United States also operated by a very different calendar than the one with which we are familiar today. In fact, some of the problems families encountered then are not so different from ours. For example, immigrant parents of the early 19th century needed safe and affordable places for their children to stay while their parents worked long hours in often insalubrious factories, shops or mills. At that time, children studied 11 months out of the year.
Around the world, each country has a different system and calendar, as well as varying amounts of paid vacation time for working parents. If you click on the link, you can see the exact breakdown for all countries in Europe. For example, when I lived in France, every working person had at least five weeks of paid vacation time. Paid vacations were first instituted in France in 1936 after massive strikes and the election of the Front Populaire. These social changes brought about a better quality of life for ordinary working people and transformed the summer season.
As is common throughout Europe, when I lived in France, school breaks for ski vacations were scheduled every February, with other breaks during the spring and summer. Children were out of school every Wednesday, based on an old tradition in which in the past, children attended catechism or bible study on Wednesdays and older children would attend classes on Saturdays. The school days were much longer than in the U.S. For example, my son attended pre-school from 8:00 a.m .to 4:00 p.m., with a long nap break during the day. Various regions of France would alternate departure dates for vacations, altering children’s schedules to help manage vacation traffic on highways, trains, and airways. After school and during holiday breaks, centres de loisirs, something like our public recreation centers run by county governments, would take over, providing after-care and camps. Overall, the system made attempts to create some harmony between adult and children’s schedules, allowing for an abundance of shared family time. When the government instituted a shortened work week, my employer allowed us to take off time on Wednesdays, allowing employees with children to spend the time together.
Browsing the web, it would seem that most countries around the world follow similar holiday breaks, depending on religious or secular holidays observed locally. In South Africa, for example, the school year is broken up into four terms, the first three each 11 weeks long, and the fourth 9 weeks long, with a three week summer break from June 27 to July 21st. Many parents and teachers believe that long summer breaks are not beneficial to the learning process, and various school calendars have been proposed to break up the school year more equitably. On the plus side, I feel longer breaks in fall or winter allow families to spend less on off-season vacations and are less of a burden in general on the family budget. Various studies on the theme of work-life balance seem to agree that a concordance of adult work timetables and children’s school schedules would be beneficial for all, allowing for more quality family time.
Today, most children in the western hemisphere are not expected to work or to contribute to the family’s income. In fact, from extreme abuse and neglect which was a common lot for nearly all children around the world for millennia, the more modern model of child rearing sets apart childhood as a time of privilege to be enjoyed, and for the first time in human history, at least in highly developed countries, fathers are encouraged to actively participate in their children’s upbringing. I personally find it encouraging that childhood has evolved into a special, magical time, and that children have begun to be considered highly desired members of society. I am hopeful that we are collectively working towards a more balanced and aware society, in which each individual, whether child or adult, is valued. I am also hopeful that this model will be extended to other cultures and countries where poverty, war, and other ills cause children to be the first victims.
A few articles about the realities of childhood around the world today:
Some books about childhood in the DCPL collections:
Children at Play: An American History by Howard P. Chudacoff
Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History by Barbara A. Hanawalt
Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
Remarkable Children: Twenty Who Made History by Dennis Brindell Fradin
Ancient Greek Children by Richard Tames
American Children’s Literature and the Construction of Childhood by Gail Schmunk Murray
The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls