In Defense of Summer Camp

Growing up, I was a huge fan of summer “sleep away” camp.  I went, year after year, to a small one that sat on the bluffs above a wide bend in the Mississippi River near Montrose, Iowa, and I liked it for all the reasons you’d think someone would like camp: New friends (that became lifelong friends), fun stuff to do, nice counselors, new skills (I learned synchronized swimming, macrame’ and tetherball, to name a few), campfires, crazy songs, and being surrounded by nature, for a whole week.  But when my teenager first went to the same camp when she was nine, she loved it for a different reason: “I loved the freedom,” she said.  “It was like your own little community where you could come and go as you pleased.” I’d never thought of it like that before–  but campers there were responsible for getting to meals and classes on their own, listening for their counselor’s whistle and following their own printed schedule, with breaktime in between. And they had a lot of free time in the afternoon, when they could swim, nap, go to the camp store or participate in tournaments.  Upon talking with her further, her comments underlined what I’d already been thinking: There is truly something inside modern-day, big city kids that is yearning for freedom and independence.  That even though today’s kids have never known the kind of freedoms their parents had, they miss those freedoms.   I’ve heard it from my younger child as well, when we go visit Grandma, who lives in a small town.  There, both girls get to “roam” (my hometown neighborhood is kind of secluded and almost in the “country”) and when they return back to our home in the Dallas suburbs, the little one is always bummed.  “Mom, you were so lucky when you were a kid,” she always says.

Summer days for my husband and I, when we were kids, (as I’m sure was the case with many people our age) were spent riding our bikes all over the place, finding friends without having pre-arranged “play dates”. He grew up in a big city and I grew up in a small town, and it was the same experience.  My husband would often be gone for hours and his mom wouldn’t see him until supper.  When I was nine, I’d ride my bike down the street to the pool and stay there all day.  When my friends and I turned 13, it was a rite of passage to ride the bus downtown, on our own, and go shopping.

Our kids definitely don’t enjoy freedoms exactly like that.  When you live in the “Metroplex” that gave birth to the Amber Alert system, you think differently about things.  Also, suburbs tend to have busy, 6-lane streets criss-crossing through neighborhoods, streets that are not friendly to young bike riders.  I think good parents today have to find a balance between being safety conscious and still allowing freedoms.  (Sorry, there I go again talking about balance, but this is a different kind.) Our 10-year-old can ride her bike, just not outside our neighborhood.  If she walks to a friend’s house that lives a couple streets away, she takes a walkie talkie and she and the friend meet up halfway.  She does get to meet friends at the neighborhood pool and stay there by herself, only I drive her there. And when she rides her bike to school, I ride part of the way alongside her (and, unbeknownst to her, watch her ride the rest of the way.)   My teenager definitely enjoys a few more freedoms due to her age, maturity, and proficiency with a cell phone. 

Some of you are probably thinking I am too restrictive, but the few freedoms I try hard to give my kids are considered a no-no by many area parents I know.  Letting a 10-year-old child (who is a good swimmer) stay at the small, neighborhood pool without a parent, even though she knows most of the lifeguards as well as the families visiting the pool, and even though the posted age for being there alone is 7? Horrors.  Allowing a teenager to be at the mall with friends to go shopping, by themselves? Unheard of. (And, you let her pick out her own clothes? Unbelievable.)  You let your nine-year-old go into Braum’s and order an ice cream cone and pay for it by herself, while you wait in the car just outside the door? No way. While on vacation, you let your four-year-old child have fun making friends from all over the world at the supervised, highly rated Kid’s Club at a resort while you and your husband spent a fun afternoon alone? Never.  You let your teenager bike to a nearby sandwich shop, and cross a busy street by herself? How wrong.  (One of my teenager’s friends has never even been taught to ride a bike, let alone been allowed to own one.) You let your child attend “sleep away” camp at age 9, and go to Costa Rica with the youth group on a church mission trip at age 13? Are you out of your mind?

No, as I’ve said before, I’m just trying to give our kids whatever independence I can, within safe parameters. And the naysayers can always come up with all sorts of reasons why what I’m doing is not safe.  But keeping your child on a short, virtual leash is not safe, either.  At some point, you have to ask yourself, is it worth taking safety-consciousness to the degree that it denies your child the chance to grow and develop normally?   “A Life Lived in Fear is a Life Half-Lived” is the motto from “Strictly Ballroom”, one of my all-time favorite movies, and I think it’s a good motto to live by. (And, as I’ve said many times, the kids who are the most restricted in their formative years are the wildest once they get to high school. Or college.)

Today I’m a supporter of “sleep away” summer camp more than ever.  (My 10-year-old will attend one in East Texas for the first time in July.) Even if a camp doesn’t have all the freedoms of the one I attended, it’s still good for an older child to be away from home and make decisions on their own.  And it’s a growing experience not only for the child, but for the parent as well.  The other day, one of my friends, whose daughter is also signed up for a sleep away camp for the first time, called me in a panic to ask, “If the camp instructions say no cell phones, computers, or other electronic devices– how am I going to keep in touch with my child?” I hope I wasn’t too blunt in my answer, but basically I told her that while the camp does have a telephone, parents aren’t supposed to call unless it is an emergency. (And I think this rule has a lot to do with lessening homesickness as much as it helps a child have a bit of freedom.)
“But I’ve never not been in contact with her every day!” she said, sounding a little defiant.   That’s what the U.S. mail is still good for, I told her.  You write to them before they ever get to camp, so letters will be waiting for them at the first “mail call”.  And they write to you. (Thank God this particular camp still champions “Letters from Camp”!) 
“This is going to be so hard,” she said. 
Ah, but so worth it– especially if it’s a good camp experience for her daughter.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Summer Camp”

  1. We sent our four children to summer camp. Only two of them really liked it and were motivated to go year after year. We didn’t make the ones who didn’t want to go, go. Personally, I never did go to camp. I think I would have loved it.

  2. Saw this piece on Mamapedia today and tried to leave a comment, but couldn’t. I couldn’t agree more! Both my kids have loved sleepaway camp, for the reasons you discuss. My youngest went the first time when she was eight and wasn’t homesick for a minute.

  3. My oldest is turning 9 this week. I sent him to overnight camp for the first time a few weeks ago. It was hard for me, since he is my oldest and this was our first experience, but GREAT for all of us! I live in East Texas, where I was raised, and he attended a camp close to home (makes me wonder if it isn’t the same one your daughter went to…), but far enough away for him to have independence. I lived in the Dallas area for years, and moved back to East Texas to raise my kids for so many of the reasons that you listed in this article. I long for my three children to have the freedoms that I did 30 something years ago, but have a hard time in today’s world…. I really enjoyed your article!! As for my son’s first overnight camp experience? He LOVED it, and I’ve already pre-registered him for next year!

  4. Thanks for writing! When my youngest finally got to experience camp, and I went to pick her up, I’ve never seen her so happy.  She said it was “the greatest experience of my life”! Definitely one of those things I need to remember whenever I think I’m a bad parent…

  5. Thank you so much for your comments! My youngest went to Camp Bette Perot, just south of Athens, TX near Palestine.  I am so pleased that she still managed to have a fabulous time in spite of the heat (she had insisted on signing up for the tent camping area), and rain. Since that post was written a couple years ago, you know it wasn’t nearly as hot then as it is now, so a big hats off to your son for loving his first camp experience, too! 

  6. I just read this post. Funny, that camp sounds just like the one I sent my dd to (age 8) this July. (I know it’s not the same one) I agree that it is hard to allow the freedoms we had. It’s sad. But we let her blow and go with play dates and sleepovers and whatever else is *safe* Oh, and she LOVED, LOVED, LOVED sleep away camp. Told us she wants to go back next year.

  7. Yay! Always good to hear. My youngest would go back every summer if she could just talk a friend into going with her– hasn’t had any luck since her first very fun time there, and doesn’t want to go by herself!

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