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Send Your Kids to Summer Camp

Second in a series about planning for summer (Part 1)

by Louise Kuo Habakus

summerplanning2Here’s my final thought on what to do with your kids over the summer:

Send them away

Yes, I’m serious. It’s good for us. It’s good for them. I can hover too much. I tell them what to eat, how to eat, when to eat. Do this. Don’t do that. I hear myself nagging and cringe.

A little absence makes the heart grow fonder. It reminds me that this time is precious. They won’t always be this age.

In praise of traditional sleepaway summer camp

“I have a conviction that a few weeks spent at a well-organized summer camp may be of more value educationally than a whole year of formal school work.”
— Charlies Eliot, the 21st president of Harvard University

In 2005, the American Camp Association published a three-year national survey of 5,000+ families, with children under 14 who attended 80 different accredited camps, to evaluate the outcomes of their camp experience.

Overall, the results told a consistent story, that children acquire and sustain significant benefits in: 1) positive identity (self-sufficiency), 2) social skills including leadership, 3) physical and thinking skills (learning new things), and 4) positive values. You can read the full study here.

Then I read about Martin Seligman’s 2012 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. He says his old theory of happiness is too simplistic. Seligman now focuses on the construct of well-being, which he defines using the mnemonic PERMA:

  • Positive emotion (feeling good)
  • Engagement (flow, did time stop for you?)
  • Relationships (connection)
  • Meaning (part of something bigger than the self)
  • Achievement (winning, mastery, accomplishment)

Sunshine Parenting wrote a terrific post explaining how PERMA applies to summer camp. Some of these key benefits are: risk taking in a nurturing environment, new physical and social experiences, recognition of competence and character strengths from peers, and being part of a proud and longstanding community.

Choosing a summer camp

A few weeks ago, we signed our kids up for their second summer of sleepaway camp. They’ll spend three weeks at a boys’ camp in northeastern Pennsylvania, and a week at scout camp (Forestburg and Quail Hill).

Last year, I wasn’t so sure. It was a total leap of faith. This year, it’s the one aspect of their summer that I’m 100% confident about. There are many excellent camps. Rather than describe what we liked in the abstract, I’m going to tell you what I think you should look for, based on our experience. There are so many great camps — ask friends for referrals. I can vouch for this one: Camp Shohola for boys in northeastern Pennsylvania.

THE BRILLIANCE OF BEING ORDINARY

Our children live in a competitive world, and they’re encouraged to specialize and excel at ever younger ages. Third graders join travel teams and seventh graders take the SAT. It’s tempting to view summer as a time for children to gain an extra advantage by attending coveted selective camps for sports, academics, or the arts.

How about giving our children a different kind of gift? Let them choose to do something just because they want to try. And allow them to enjoy it without pressure or expectations. Consider attending a traditional camp that offers a great diversity of experiences. Then stand back and watch what happens.

The camp we chose offers 60 different activities. Our science and tech guy shocked us by choosing all sports at camp. He is now playing on his third rec basketball team. Our baseball player loved radio broadcasting (he tried it before I did!) and became a ga-ga ball afficionado.

TRY SOME REAL DIVERSITY

Scaling your first mountain, getting up on water skis, or finding out you’re really good at archery can feel pretty great. Trying new things is one way to push beyond current boundaries. Another way is by meeting new and different people.

Most of our children spend a good deal of time in environments with a high degree of homogeneity or conformity; geographic, certainly, and often religious, socioeconomic, racial, or philosophical. Summer camp is a way to introduce your child to new elements of diversity; especially a camp that offers financial aid, and hosts counselors and campers from all over the country and the world.

Last year, our boys’ counselors were from Spain, England, Australia, and Hungary. All told, there were 30 nations represented. By the way, ga-ga was introduced to Australian madrikhim returning from Israel. It was played in the Australian Jewish community of Perth in the 1960s. Cool!

KEEP THE BEST OF THE OLD

We can get wowed by shiny infrastructure and fancy new technology. There’s another kind of impressive asset, however. Camps are educational institutions, and the older camps hold a wealth of knowledge about teaching and inspiring children through peer modeling, shared responsibility, and the rituals of leadership and tradition.

We wanted a camp with continuity and community; a place where campers send their sons and grandsons. Some camps have been run by the same family for generations.

Summer camp used to be a childhood rite of passage for many, but far fewer kids attend today. Some argue this is due to smaller family sizes and the growth in alternate educational programs. I believe it is largely due to cost. There are ways to do it more economically. Start the application process early. Inquire about financial aid and other options, including working senior camper or counselor positions for older children. Coordinate with schools, groups, and interested parents for fundraising ideas and negotiation leverage. Boy Scouts and YMCA offer excellent, affordable camping programs.

OTHER THOUGHTS

We felt a modest-sized summer camp (130-150 kids) made sense, so our kids wouldn’t feel overwhelmed or get lost in the shuffle.

We strongly preferred an all boys’ camp. Similar to boy scouts, it’s a place where boys can forge strong bonds of friendship, follow a responsible code of behavior, and learn from each other about what it means to become young men. It’s also nice if there’s a sister camp nearby, for siblings and socializing.

We hoped that campers would have responsibilities and chores, and provided with guidance so they learn to take care of their personal property, do laundry, help keep the camp clean, and respect nature.

And finally, it’s helpful if the camp accommodates dietary concerns. Our boys are Paleo at home and minimally gluten-free otherwise. We didn’t make any special requests. We sent them to camp with snacks. They know what they’re supposed to eat, and generally make reasonable choices because they want to feel good. To our surprise and their delight, their camp arranged for gluten-free versions of all their meals. I also love that they go (relatively) easy on the sugar.

***

If you usually carry a purse, then you know that sensation of lightness you get when you leave it at home. It’s freeing but strange. That’s how it felt when my kids were away. There was great freedom. But I’d stop short at times, seized by a feeling that I was missing something important, like an arm.  That’s when I’d think: That’s it! No more sleepaway camp.

Then suddenly they’re home. They seem taller and wiser, and I can’t stop hugging them. The stories come tumbling out, one after the other, with pride and exuberance. Along with the list of things that they absolutely, definitely intend to do at camp next summer.

We were fortunate to find what we wanted. Please share your favorite camp stories and recommendations below. I’d love to hear.

Louise circle 8-7-14Louise remembers the first time she went to sleepaway summer camp. There were bats in her cabin and the lake was freezing at 8am. She felt like a million bucks when she hiked Mt. Mansfield and waterskied for the first time.

 

 

34 Comments

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  • Aimee Geyer-Mihalic

    What camp do your boys go to? We are looking for our 12 year old son!

  • Laureen Forman

    Yes, yes, yes! Best thing ever and guess what – again this year too.

  • Aimee Geyer-Mihalic

    Are all summer camps that expensive? I wasn’t expecting those numbers!! Can you recommend a resource for something more affordable to the average family?

    • Louise Habakus

      Aimee, as you’ve probably noticed, kids’ activities in general cost so much. And you can imagine the infrastructure costs to feed, house, engage, train, and supervise at a residential camp. In addition to the ideas in my post, I think it’s worth it to consider prioritizing more unstructured play at home in general (free!), engaging kids in helping to save and fundraise, and then seeing if it’s possible to splurge on a couple weeks of camp.

  • Alesha Mikels

    My boys are 8 and 5, both going up a year in July. They both are going for a week to Cub Scout day camp for one week. And the oldest is also going to sleep over camp for 3 nights. Price is within our budget. Time is enough to have a blast, and not long enough for them to miss out on all the other fun stuff and mini vacations we do.

  • Maureen Durkin

    My kids went for. 4 weeks starting at 8-10 depending on kid. They then became camp counselors. Hands down best thing I did for my kids. They already talk about sending their kids. Giving children roots n wings!!

  • S Loire King

    Camp was hell for me as a kid. Pure hell. Then teen camp is where i was exposed to drugs ( dropping acid) and engaging with much much older boys. My daughter’s experiences were not quite the same, but by 14 she had had enough and I picked her up mid-week. So no I am not a big fan. I do not like the idea of my kids being with people who i do not know influencing them so much.

    • Louise Habakus

      OMG S Loire King… I’m so sorry that happened to you. You raise an important point (and I know that many are concerned about the potential for sexual abuse, too). It is critical for parents to research the various camps, get references and referrals, speak with the leadership, etc. Most parents I know second guess themselves a lot, and like everything else, there are no guarantees. We have to gauge our children’s readiness and give guidance. At the end of the day, our job is to teach them to fly, and to let them go.

  • Nancy Hokkanen

    I am still working on that “trust” thing — sending my child off with strangers for an entire week — I haven’t done it.

  • Judy Walsh Baumhover

    For you east coasters-Highly recommend Camps Beckett and Chimney Corners in the Berkshires. (Generations of family members have gone there.) For the West Coasters-Highly recommend Gold Arrow Camp in the CA Sierras; in our 4th year of association. If you’re unsure about camp, try a Family Camp week. They are not inexpensive, though.

  • Maureen Durkin

    My kids went to Camp Sea Gull and Camp Seafarer.in North Carolina. 2 Boys at sea gull daughter at seafarer. it was nice knowing for most years they were there together.

  • Katie Novarro Beecher

    How old are your kids, Nancy?

  • Will Walsh

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/06/in-praise-of-summer-camp/257336/

    In Praise of Summer Camp
    The Atlantic
    Jared Keller Jun 28 2012

  • Louise Kuo Habakus

    Thank you, Will. I never saw it when it came out. Crazy… I was going to use that same title! Excellent…

  • Will Walsh

    Camp Becket provides the backdrop for the Atlantic article — written by a former camper and counselor. The best place in the world. Older son had eight summers there, the younger is off for his fourth. Two daughters put in 10 summers at Chimney Corners down the road. [Would also put in a shout for Camp Mason, in New Jersey, which a former Becket camp director runs]. Done well (and the four-week programs at these camps typically do it very well), summer camp is a great place to try new things, learn independence and, in a matter of hours, make friends who last a lifetime.

  • Patrick Thomas

    I keep hearing stories of how the camp leaders have to keep Excel spreadsheets of all the different medications many of the kids are on so they can administer it all to them.

  • Dawn Conley Noble`

    Funny, when I read the title, “old fashioned camp” I anticipated reading about sending your kids out the back door to find their own fun and activities…that was my idea of old fashioned camp! Then again, I lived on a dead end street with lots of kids and we made forts in the woods and go carts out of all our parents garage stuff. I was glad to see people posting here about the fears of sending their kids to camp. I still don’t get it, the thought of sending my girls somewhere with people I don’t know freaks me out! I would love to have some open dialogue about this…I hear kids love it, I hear parents say it’s wonderful, I’d love to know more.

    • Will Walsh

      Dawn, it definitely is dependent on the child and on the camp, but my kids have loved it. Absolutely no fear on the staff issue. The campers are with college age kids with an incredible amount of energy who coordinate matters within their group to essentially exhaust the campers. Imagination and energy are the key aspects and the vast majority of campers buy into it all.

    • Will Walsh

      The Atlantic article does give a good background. As a camper, staff member and parent of camper, I have 27 summers of tales and cannot imagine a better time for kids.

  • Dawn Conley Noble

    Thank you Will for your comments. It’s an interesting topic. I once had a very candid discussion about ‘nut-free’ issues with a mom that had a child with allergies. She and I, at opposite ends, took nothing personally and we explored the issue in depth and it was such an eye opener for us both. When I read your comment, “the vast majority of campers buy into it all” several thoughts come to mind…not good ones! As a nurse who does not vaccinate her children, birthed at home, reads excerpts from Louise Hay to her children when they are struggling with an illness, I know the energy it takes to go against the ‘group’ mentality…and while I cheer (crave even) at my daughters being able to learn this at an early age …I wonder how sending them off with children, college students, other adults whom I have no knowledge of their viewpoints or convictions seems like a greater challenge than they (or I) might be ready for. This is exactly the conversation I would love to have, I want to know how others, who maybe felt like me…were able to take steps to give their children the experiences you mention as “27 summers of tales”…Oh, my gosh…is this what parenting is all about??? Too funny…thank you all for the conversation/thought starter!!

  • Will Walsh

    Dawn, I would say that your fears are reading things into comments that simply do not exist. The article above contains several parts that discuss your concerns. Perhaps the best passage is the one that goes —- So are summer camps inherently good for children? Research in childhood development and psychology seem to confirm what any camp alumnus will tell you. Researcher Michael J. Unger argues that the camp experience — being placed in a minimalist environment away from the watchful eye of parents — can make children more independent and resilient. “There are the simple challenges of learning how to build a fire, going on a hike, or conquering a high ropes course,” wrote Unger in Psychology Today. “There are the much more complex challenges of getting along with a new group of peers, learning how to ask for help from others, or taking manageable amount of risks without a parent following after you.” — I would continue on this that there is no “group mentality” to overcome. Two of the primary personal qualities that Becket helped develop for me were personal integrity and strength of character. That said, a 8, 10 or 12 year old amper who is isolating herself from everything, theoretically going against the group, is missing out on many of positive aspects of camp.

  • Will Walsh

    Is this what parenting “is all about?” Doesn’t that strike you as a silly question? Obviously, what your child does for four weeks in the year is not what parenting is all about. That said, it is undeniably part of it. The ability to trust your child to handle herself correctly; to learn things without a parent hovering on top of them and insuring that everyone around them has the viewpoints or convictions that their parents approve of. It includes the pleasure in having your son discussing what he learned in the nature course that he took, in showing off the kayaking skills that he has learned or, later on, his involvement with 11 other 15 year olds from camp working on a reservation doing improvement projects and running day camp sessions.

  • Louise Kuo Habakus

    Dawn, you are in such good company. Embedded in your angst are some broader questions, and when you scratch beneath the surface, and look at how we’re all managing, in the context of family and marriage, too, I think these are among the biggest issues of our time.

    Parents today are dealing with very real, and relatively new challenges that most of our parents didn’t face. Half of all kids in this country have some degree of chronic illness or health impairment due to obesity. This makes for some pretty stressed out parents who carefully choreograph diets, schedules, sensory loads, school lives, playdates, and more. If you add on a full-time job and the desire for some kind of life beyond kid management and bill paying, then it becomes a real juggling act. Is it worth sending a kid away for a couple weeks and then knowing you’re going to have to “clean them up” health-wise afterwards? We need to be talking about this.

    At the end of the day, our job is to produce healthy, well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults and launch them into the world.

    Will is right that it depends on the kid. It also depends on the parent. My goal, for this post and for Fearless Parent in general, is to encourage parents to avoid fear-based decisions. For my kids, and for me and Ron, it meant taking baby steps and then a leap of faith that proved to be a great thing to do. I come from a family of girls but I only have boys. I’m sure gender plays a role although, when the imagination runs wild, scary things can happen to all kids.

    I wanted to look at the research to see if there was support for the decision we made, in the hope that it would be helpful to others who were considering camp, too.

  • Todd

    I was a camper from age 6-18, then a counselor until 21 and now a camp director for the past 15 years of my life. Camp changes lives!!!!

    • veronica

      Hi I was trying to fiend a good camp for my kids to go to I live in Bakersfield c.a I have 10 kids from 16 to 2 years old I was looking for something for my kids they are 12,11,10,8,7, if u can help me I would really appreciate it here’s my number 661=3749198 thanks

  • Rhonda

    I consider myself a “lifer” when it comes to camp. I went for the first time when I was 8, for a half-week and cried when it was time to leave! I returned for 9 more summers before joining the summer staff which I enjoyed for 11 years. I now volunteer for one week each year and am looking forward to my 31st summer this July. I’ve made so many life-long friends and am part of a huge camp family that I adore.

  • Bev

    I went to sleep away camp every summer for 7 years and they are still some of my favorite memories. I continue to sing those silly camp songs and relish in the memories of campfires, laughing with friends, snipe hunting, capture the flag, and pow wow days. When my son became old enough, I insisted on camp despite protests from my husband. Yes, it was one of the hardest days dropping Chase off at camp and seeing the tears in his eyes (mine too!) but when I picked him up and saw how wonderful he was, the new foods he had tried, the friends he had made, and the invaluable experiences and opportunities he was offered, it was all worth it. Just last month he told me he that going to camp was one of the best things I’d ever made him do and he will insist that his kids go to camp too. I hope his camp will still be there for his children. He is going back this summer, his 7th year, to be a CIT. I went to my camp reunion 3 years ago, after 35 years the place hadn’t changed much and it didn’t take long for the laughter, songs, and memories to come back. Please consider camp for your kids. It is truly an experience of a lifetime.

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  • Lillian Roden

    how much does it cost

    • Louise Kuo Habakus

      Hi, Lillian. Here’s some information on Camp Shohola’s dates and rates as an example. If you’re interested, definitely give Duncan and Holly Barger a call. Can’t say enough good about Shohola and I know they’d love to talk with you. In the comments below, our readers offered other camp suggestions that you might consider, too.

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