Second in a series about planning for summer (Part 1)
by Louise Kuo Habakus
Here’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.
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 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.