© Petro | Dreamstime.com
I vividly remember picking up my 10-year-old daughter, Bethany, after her inaugural week at camp. While I envisioned her jumping into my arms, she merely shot me a friendly smile with a wave before returning to her newfound friends. In the moment, I was disheartened; but more than a dozen years after that day have proven the experience to be an important first step in her journey towards independence.
Olivia Dowell, who along with her husband, Jack, founded Camp Bear Track in 1994, agrees. “As parents, we all want our children to try new things, to gain self-confidence, and find the courage to face situations with which they are not familiar.” Dowell says camp is the place for kids to discover that type of courage.
“They get through camp and realize how much they gained from it; while going away to camp gives kids many things, the greatest gift is independence.”
Why sleep-away camp?
But with the countless activities available that encourage individuality, why camp? “Because I am a product of camp,” says former camper Allie Denton, who found North Carolina’s Camp Hollymont on the Internet as a girl. “I had seen a movie of an all-girls camp in the mountains when I was 10 and immediately knew that was what I wanted. That summer, my parents made a bold move and put me on a plane to North Carolina to attend. After two weeks, I was hooked.” Denton returned each summer and eventually became Hollymont’s assistant director.
While it is certainly normal and healthy for parents to protect and provide for their children, going away to camp offers kids a true first try at doing for themselves. “Camp not only gave me authentic confidence,” says Denton, “but also forced me to move forward in learning conflict resolution and respect for others and their differences.”
Memphis dad Jeffrey Goldberg agrees. “I was an athlete and all of my counselors were college athletes, so we had that in common,” he says. The counselors, however, did not share his Jewish faith and consequently, were unfamiliar with Jewish customs and values. “We shared that with them, and we learned a great deal from them in return,” he says. Even his college choice was, in part, colored by the impact a camp counselor (who played ball for Syracuse) had on him.
Although the camp experience is rooted in childhood, its influence often grows with kids, even through college. “Not only was going away to college easier, but accepting people’s differences once I was there came more naturally to me,” says Denton. Different families have different ways of doing things, and camp is the perfect place to learn respect and find common ground. “In fact,” says Denton, “when I later had the opportunity to go to South Africa and study abroad, I kept looking back at my 10-year-old self, reminding myself if I conquered fear of the unknown then, I could conquer it now.” Denton adds that her time in South Africa turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences of her life. “But I’m not sure I could have done it without the camp experience. You can’t take a big leap until you take a small step.”
“Camp not only influenced where I went to college, but prepared me to go when the time came,” adds Goldberg, who grew up spending eight weeks every summer at camp. “The idea of moving away from home was appealing to me because living at camp every summer had given me the confidence to go out into the world; I was confident that I could handle myself.”
Goldberg will send his own fourth-grade son, Kosten, to camp this summer for the first time. And how to prepare for this new adventure? “Other than orientation and a few overnights away from home, I’m not sure,” he admits, “but I am confident it will help him learn about life and experience things he couldn’t at home. I was so lucky to have that experience.”
A place of community and traditions
Memphis mom Lisa Waggoner sent all four of her children to Camp Bear Track in Drasco, Arkansas, from the time they entered first grade, and has been delighted with the impact that camp has had on her kids. “Not only did camp foster independence and self-discovery, it also gave them the chance to be themselves, without making them feel as if they had to reinvent themselves,” says Waggoner.
In his book, Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow, psychologist Michael Thompson highlights the experience of one 14-year-old boy, David McDonald, who discovered his talent not for sports or swimming or horseback riding, but (to his surprise), glass blowing, at camp. “It changed the way I felt about myself forever,” says McDonald.
“We help campers discover and develop what they excel at and what they like by letting them choose the activities they want to try,” says Dowell. Admittedly, archery, water skiing, or another unfamiliar sport or activity can be a bit of a reach for kids, but trying new things in a safe atmosphere is part of the secret sauce of camp. “It’s not the bells and whistles but the community and traditions that keep bringing them back year after year.”
Community, traditions, and independence are all a part of what camp offers. “A place to make mistakes and skin their knees; growth in a controlled environment,” says Denton. “You can’t purchase that at a store.”
As the mom of 10, the time comes every few years for one of my own children to fly. I feel like I’ve done my job when he or she can go forward confidently. “Doesn’t it make you sad when they are so ready to go?” Mom Dot, my mother-in-law, often asks me when another kid leaves the nest. No, I tell her. I would rather have them eager to go find their lives than shrinking back, afraid.
In my experience, summer camp is a safe, solid first step in that journey.
Seven Ways to Prepare Your Kids (and You) for the Camp Experience
- Give your child the gift of attending sleep-away camp.
- Prepare him for homesickness, but don’t manage it from a distance.
- Do not make the “We’ll take you home if you’re unhappy” deal.
- Help your child practice skills he’ll need before leaving home.
- Use letters and postcards for updates from home.
- Take a vacation from parenting. Have fun and skip the guilt.
Source: Homesick and Happy by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.