This year, I’m as happy as my children are to have passed the last day of school and welcomed summer. I’m not alone: Even though summer brings new challenges, like finding childcare and paying for camps and extracurricular activities, most parents I talk to are as relieved as I am to put the rigors of the school year behind them. It’s not just a break from packing lunches, monitoring homework, and getting everyone out the door to the bus. Lately, the school-related end-of-year celebrations and parties are tough to keep up with.
When I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, small things were done to mark the end of the year and send kids off with a smile. Sometimes we had a field day, which was the equivalent of an extra-long recess. A class mom may have brought in cupcakes one year, but it wouldn’t have been much more elaborate than that. Similarly, while high school sports seasons concluded with a team dinner or other get-together, that didn’t happen for younger teams. Most activities ended with a thank you, a handshake, and that was about it.
Today, just about every activity kids are involved in memorializes the end of the year (or season) not only with obligatory certificates of participation, but also with parties that require long, online signup systems so parents can keep straight who is buying the juices and chips and who is baking the cookies and who is handling decorations. There is an upside to all of this—my youngest child’s preschool graduation was adorable to watch, even if it was also a little ridiculous to watch five-year-olds in cap-and-gown lauded for completing their coloring work. But there are also big down sides.
My oldest daughter just finished elementary school, which is certainly an event worth commemorating. Yet sixth grade graduation wasn’t just a promotion ceremony, yearbook, and pizza party. There were days of celebrations: a reception after the commemoration ceremony; a larger, elaborately decorated party with a DJ, bouncy houses, and a photo booth; a separate swimming party; an all-class kickball game… and each of these events included rounds of refreshments.
And then for all grades there were parties for the end of specific activities: a pizza party for the kids doing safety patrol for the school buses, cupcakes for the end of each sports team and dance program. It seemed to go on and on.
I’m a big believer in letting kids enjoy their desserts on special occasions. Yet I can see how this becomes a problem when nearly every day is treated as a special occasion and rounds of cupcakes just keep coming.
Beyond the dietary implications, all these “special” occasions must change kids’ expectations. If sixth grade graduation is a week-long affair, what is supposed to happen for high school graduation? How are parents going to top that? If every week or so kids have a party with cupcakes and helium balloons, how are we supposed to make birthdays and holidays feel special?
Of course, it makes sense for parents to acknowledge their kids’ good work in completing a school year and moving on to the next grade—particularly if the child has worked hard and done his or her best—but it seems over-the-top to give speeches heaping praise on eleven-year-olds just for progressing through the expected curriculum at the expected pace. It would be far better to save such accolades for when our kids really deserve it, so they actually feel the meaning of the praise, knowing that they really have accomplished something to be proud of, rather than hearing those words as the same old platitudes that are rolled out at the end of every school year or sports season.
All this over-celebrating also creates an awful lot of work for parents. I want to be involved in my kids’ school lives and consider it a duty to sign up whenever a new sign up list is sent around. Yet keeping up with the scavenger hunt of tracking down whatever refreshments, decorations, or special art supplies I need to purchase and then dole out became practically a second job in recent months. Clearly something went wrong.
Now that school is done, my kids have a lot of questions about how we are going to spend our summer. Most of those questions boil down to what special things are we going to do. Of course, I want us to have some special, memorable times together as a family this summer. Yet I also plan to make sure we have plenty of un-special days, so we can get back to remembering how to appreciate simple pleasures, as well as the rare occasions that really do warrant cupcakes and balloons.