Why summer camp is so good for kids...and parents too

I was 9 years old when I spent a week at a sleepaway Girl Scout camp. My neighborhood best friend had moved away and invited me to go with her and friends from her troop - all a year older and considerably bigger than me. I weighed all of 50 pounds and a good portion of that was my very thick hair. I was small even for my own age. I was also quite sensitive and, in the words of my preschool teacher, “very verbal.” So I wrote letters home. Lots of letters. Pitiful letters. Letters begging my parents to “please please come get me and I promise I will never talk back again in my whole entire life.” 

To be fair to my 9-year old self, my camp experience was at least in some respects objectively miserable. The older girls scared me with stories of a ghost train whose whistle we could hear as it passed on the tracks through camp (abandoned, but the tracks about a mile away were not - hence the actual whistle we often heard in the middle of the night). The food was terrible. The twice weekly shower was a trickle “solar heated” by a steel barrel mounted on a frame beneath a grove of trees, freezing cold and not nearly enough water to rinse the shampoo out of my aforementioned hair, resulting in my being swarmed by bugs. 

I was in the sailing camp and got a leech on my leg one day,  dehydrated and rehydrated to the point of vomiting on another day, and was too small to tip my boat back over when forced to practice capsizing with my much bigger but also much lazier sailing partner. On one relatively good afternoon, I ran up from the lake to towel off and felt something sharp pierce my foot. I looked at my sole only to find a big 80’s yellow triangle earring embedded there. Too mortified to go back to the infirmary yet again, I pulled it out, staunched the bleeding and limped through the day. 

Of course, most of all, I was homesick. Sooooo homesick. My dad saved all my letters. Reading them now as a parent, I think I’d love to get letters from one of my boys telling me all the things they love and miss about being home with me. And I think it must have taken a herculean effort on my mom’s part to keep my dad from driving straight down to that camp and picking me up. She’s always been the stronger one. 

My mom also knew that I would survive and that if they picked me up I might never leave home again. As it was, I didn’t go back to camp until I was a junior in college; that time as a counselor. I almost vomited on the orientation day, traumatized as I was by my first experience. But I stuck it out (again) and made some of the best friends I’ve known, grew in immeasurable ways, and even met my future husband.

Romans 5:4-5 tells us, “...suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” (NSV). Psychology too tells us that challenge builds resilience and character. Even the best sleepaway camp challenges the least homesick kid. Why do you think camp is the subject of so many movies? Why there are books and shows based on kids’ letters from camp and adults’ memories of the “best time of their life”? 

Camp forces kids to figure things out on their own, deal with their own feelings and stumbles, without even the comfort of an end of day cuddle or debrief with mom and dad. But they’re never entirely on their own. They have peers and new friends, counselors likely only a bit older than them but who act as mentors and in locus parentis, camp directors and deans and ministers for when they’re really needed. (I still remember my beloved college-age counselor coming for dinner at my house at the end of that summer. It was as though Madonna had come to visit.) If you’ve given it to them, they also have a faith in themselves and in something bigger than them that they’ll be okay. They can make it at least until pick up day, even if they decide never to go back again. Regardless of whether they love it or hate it, camp is good for kids. Bonus: it can be good for parents too

These days, I consult to a diabetes camp in Massachusetts as their on call psychologist. I only get called in for the bigger concerns. The staff there knows very well how to handle more run-of-the-mill homesickness. I would say it’s an 80/20 split of kids who love/hate diabetes camp. But even those 20 come home knowing something new about themselves, more confident in their ability to do their own insulin shots, count their own carbohydrates, or make a new friend or swim across a lake. What really stands out for me though is that their parents have zero say in their diabetes management while they’re there. They can’t even follow blood sugars from afar on continuous glucose monitors. It’s not allowed. The camp knows they have to cut off the parents to help the kids bloom and grow. And the parents learn both that they really needed the break and that their kids can be okay without them, even with diabetes. 

When Luke was 10, he started to show an interest in church camp. But he didn’t want to go on his own and I had no intention of sending him into the den of anxiety and hell that I knew to be summer camp at that age. So we started by going that summer to “family camp” at Silver Lake where Molly was the minister and leader for the week. It was just Luke and me, and a few folks we knew from church, and some new parents and kids. The plan was for Luke and me to share a small cabin. But as soon as we arrived, Luke decided he would rather sleep in the bunk room with Molly’s Rafe (two years his senior) and some other boys. 

After a few days of his running off with the other boys to swim, eat, play basketball and of generally giving me an attitude and cold shoulder, I complained to Molly about Luke’s rudeness. This was our camp weekend and he was leaving me out! Molly gently reminded me that this had been the point, hadn’t it? To be near enough that he would feel comfortable to stretch his wings, get used to the place and maybe even fly back on his own the next year? This wasn’t about me feeling left behind. Or maybe it was, but in a different way.  

Sure enough, Luke went back on his own the next year. The smallest one in his group (well, technically the second smallest until the smallest was sent home with an injury) he went not knowing a single person. Something neither I nor his dad would ever have done at his age. He made friends, including a new camp best friend who he has returned to Silver Lake with twice since then. Each summer he came home, tired and happy and more confident in himself and in his faith. And I learned to let go a little more, at least to lengthen the rope. Because I need practice letting him go as much as he needs practice leaving.