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Balancing Act: Unstructured summers of old

If you want to know how profoundly childhood has changed in the last two decades, ask someone over 35 how he or she spent summers.

More than cellphones, the Internet and TV on demand, summer is the starkest line of demarcation between modern childhood and the days of yore.

Starting at around age 11, I spent a few weeks every summer visiting my cousin in Maryland. We would sleep for hours past the time my aunt and uncle left for work, make ourselves lunch (Cheez-Its and Diet Coke), watch game shows and swim unsupervised in her in-ground pool.

Utterly unstructured, unscheduled and unenriching. It was delightful.

Now? Among my 14-year-old stepson, my 9-year-old daughter and my 5-year-old son, we are enrolled this summer in Second City camp, surfing camp, yoga camp, baseball camp, Girl Scout camp and two weeks of regular ol’ play camp. My husband and I will take turns working from home to fill out the other days.

This transition to camp culture is often attributed to both parents working, but that’s not entirely true. Plenty of moms have worked outside the home for plenty of generations. We kids just spent a lot more time unsupervised.

Good? Bad? Depends whom you ask. I asked my Chicago Tribune colleagues to share their summer memories and found that they didn’t sound all that different from mine. Somehow we survived.

Here are their stories:

“The week after my eldest sister graduated from high school, my parents and four siblings set out in the white station wagon to drive from Nebraska to Disneyland, Alcatraz and my aunt’s house. As the youngest, I spent most of the 1,500 miles banished to the hump on the floor between the front row and the middle row of seats, dragging on the secondhand smoke from my dad’s Winstons, possibly from a pack one of us had bought him with the $1.25 he would thrust into our hands. (It’s how I learned to count change.) Never was a seat belt fastened on the entire 3,000 miles or on any of the 50-mile trips to our cabin on Lake Angostura in South Dakota, where we spent much of the rest of our childhood summers, walking nature trails plied by rattlesnakes, crying when stickers in the scrubby grass pierced our bare feet and, as often as not, bailing water out of the boat rather than water skiing. I wouldn’t trade any of it for a safer summer.”

– Wendy Donahue, reporter


“My mother’s dictum was ‘Go out and get some fresh air,’ which was funny because we lived in the Bronx. My brothers and I hit the door after breakfast and might return for lunch, then out again and back at 6-ish for dinner. What did we do? Stickball. Softball. Off the wall. Running bases. Riding our bikes through the streets of New York as though nothing bad could possibly happen. (We weren’t stupid; we learned how to recognize the look of people who wanted to mess with us, and we steered clear.) One day we rode clear out from University Heights to the Tappan Zee Bridge; I can’t tell you how far that was, but we barely stopped, and it was dark when we finally got home.

“Now, we were poor. Not starving poor, but no-nice-things poor. So when my friends and I decided to take in a Yankees game, I’d get up extra early, grab my mom’s laundry cart and scour the alleys for discarded soda bottles. Stores charged a deposit on bottles then, and each 16-ounce bottle was worth a nickel, and quart bottles a dime. It didn’t take long to get enough for a ballgame; general admission seats were $1.50, a hot dog and Coke set you back another $1.50, and we saved money on the subway by jumping the turnstiles.”

– Phil Vettel, dining critic


“Until I was 10, I shared a three-bedroom house with my mom, two of her sisters and their five kids. The only directive we received from the adults was, ‘Stay outside!’ Each morning after cartoons, we’d ride bikes, foot race and double Dutch blocks from our house. We might have run home for ice cream truck change, but ultimately we came home when the streetlights blinked on. I recall many nights during dinner when my aunts would ask, ‘What did y’all do today?’ ”

– Toya Smith, lifestyles editor