School holidays – summer agony for many parents

Organising suitable programmes for the children during long summer holidays causes headaches to many parents around Europe these days. It is difficult enough to find camps, holiday activities where the children are safe and that also have an educational value, but in Hungary two scandals are making the decision even more difficult for parents. One is a summer camp that is absolutely unsuitable for children – at least in my opinion -, the other is a 25-year-old story of abuse.

In Hungary 19th century traditions are kept and schools are closed from 15th June to 1st September while the average parent can take maximum 2 weeks of holiday during this period. It means that you have to find ways for your children to do meaningful activities for 8 weeks that is not part of free education. Even well-of families cannot afford more than 3 or 4 weeks of summer camps, the rest is solved either by the family not going on holiday at the same time and both parents spending 2 weeks with the children respectively, or by relying on grandparents or leaving the children home alone.

Summer camps are either organised by teachers of the school the children are attending – but as a private enterprise – or by companies, NGOs. Parental involvement in education has no real tradition in the country and it is fully discouraged by the government we have had for the past 4+ years. As a result of this parents do not really know the people they are trusting their children to. When the media offers stories that show camp instructors/teachers who offer unsuitable activities or who abuse children, many parents end in a desperate situation not knowing if they made the right decision.

About a week ago an article was published about a former teacher who sexually abused his students 25 years ago also leaving the teaching profession at that time. The school where he was teaching is one of the most prestigious secondary school in the country. He was also the organiser and leader of summer camps that was very popular with children. The issue has been discussed a lot for the past week or so and it turned out that while this teacher was a charismatic person and an exceptionally good teacher, quite a lot of students were abused. Neither other teachers nor parents knew about the story.  The young teacher had sexual relationship with his 14-18-year-old students, mostly boys. It seems he was approaching mostly neglected children or those with problems at home, eg. divorcing parents. We all know that sexuality is slippery ground in that age as the majority of children have sex first at that age. In case of a teacher a relationship must be out of the question but the issue of consent or even initiative on the student’s side is still there.

While I believe such an abuse should surface at home if the parents have a real trustful relationship with their children, I can understand why this piece of news resulted in a situation of some parent taking their children home from summer camps because they lost trust in the unknown adults taking care of their children.
The other event is even more complex from a responsible parent’s point of view. The CNN blog published a photo report entitled “War games all too real for young patriots” of a military summer camp in the Hungarian countryside. According to the report some children go there because they are fascinated by the life of soldiers, but the majority is dropped by their parents with affiliation to the far right. In the camp 10-14-year-olds get proper military training only seen in African children soldier training camps. The reporter says children go through a personality shift within 5 days. They also learn how to use war weaponry, using proper weapons the army is using. The Spanish photographer was deeply touched emotionally by the fear the children went through in the camp.

This example puts a question mark to the parenting abilities of those sending their children to such a summer camp. In my opinion these parents do not keep the best interest of their children in their mind. But is also makes you think of the necessity of some kind of supervision over summer camps if such physical abuse can happen to children. Exposure to military training at the age of 10 can be even more harmful for the mental health of children than the sexual abuse mentioned above.

What could be the solution? Very clearly not to have such long school holidays, but education activities organised throughout the year, leaving as long a holiday period as parents can have (in the Nordic countries it may be over a month, but in the new member states it is more typical to only have a week or two). But it also need a break with the traditional school of long boring lessons sitting in classrooms, and a shift to activities that can make learning at school enjoyable instead of exhausting. It also needs curriculum planning keeping the realities of the climate change in mind making it possible to ‘teach’, but not in a traditional way even during extreme heat waves. In Hungary public institutions are obliged to be open for the public as heat shelters during heat alert periods if they have air conditioning. Unfortunately no school in Hungary has that obligation at the moment for the lack of air conditioners and the financial means to operate them.

But above all parents need support in learning how to build real trust with their children instead of disciplining them and also there need to be parental involvement in schools so that parents get to know the people they trust their children to. 

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