Every summer more than a quarter of a million children in Canada go to overnight camp. The old cliché applies: To those who have experienced it, no explanation is necessary. For those who have not, none is possible. Ask an old camper why overnight camp was important and you’ll hear stories of their first kiss, laughing with friends that they keep for life, sweet songs and gooey chocolate s’mores round the campfire, standing up and learning to be a leader, paddling through morning mist to the haunting call of the loon.
But the stories do not tell the whole tale, for underlying all the poignant and powerful moments that build lifetime memories at summer camp is one salient factor that outweighs all else: Summer camp is for most children their first extended time away from their parents, and it is that separation that most dramatically defines camp. Whether camp lasts two weeks or two months for a child, the cord is cut. No child goes to camp for the first time without terror: “Can I survive without my parents?” And few go home without triumph: “I did it! I managed without my parents!” Contained in that experience – for the children – is a whole new realization of personal ability and independence.
For parents sending a child to overnight camp is more ambivalent. In our minds we want nothing more than our children’s successful adjustment to camp, to independence, to their own lives. But parenting young children has been so rich with intimacy and connection that we’ve come to count on their presence. When they leave for camp they’re going off to a grand new adventure but we’re left with empty rooms and quiet kitchens. Keeping in close touch with them at camp is a comfort we parents seek.
The new thing in the camp world is using the internet to link camp and home in ways that Canada Post never imagined. Hungry internet companies have found a fresh new market in kid-sick parents of summer campers. There are American camps with webcams at the swim docks, posting kids’ pics on websites hourly. Here in Canada we’re a little behind the times (or actually are we ahead?); many summer camps have only just signed up with companies that market email services for parents and kids at camp, catering to our need to keep the umbilical cord intact. It’s all part of our increasing addiction to instant round the clock communication. At some camps kids bring cell phones, use email, send and receive faxes.
We cherish certain old-fashioned ideas. Cell phones are verboten, email isn’t on, kids neither fax (unless outside of Toronto ) nor use the telephone, and no thanks to webcams at the swim docks. We’ve made a conscious choice not to enter the realm of instant communication, because we want to safeguard summer camp’s differentness from city life and the specialness of this children’s world. Overnight camp is beyond vacation, beyond geography, much more than a beautiful lakeside place. It’s an emotionally different planet where children grow by leaps and bounds, a safe place where they learn independence and grow into their own identity. Instant communication with home is an obstacle to the independence that allows children to make that magical transformation.
Sure, at summer camp we teach kids to sail and canoe and ride horses and windsurf and play tennis and all that fun stuff; but that’s not what camp is about at the deepest level. Camp is a childrens’ world. But not in the sense of Lord of the Flies. If you let children be, on their own with neither supervision nor boundaries, they would make unsafe choices by the dozen and end up hurt and/or unhappy. Imagine a place where someone has laboured full time for 10 months to assemble a crackerjack team of energetic young leaders who pretty much all share a common philosophy of supporting children to learn and grow and to find the best in themselves, in a safe place. That’s camp!
Summer Camp is a place for kids to invent their best self, to walk away from limiting preconceptions of who they are. I remember an 11 year old boy telling me: “I’m not cool at home. At school I’m a nerd but here I’m cool.” Kids come to camp with assorted invisible baggage: Acrimonious divorces, over-controlling parents who require their child to rack up achievements at activities as if camp were an Ivy League school, parents who want them to lose weight….
Dan Kindlon’s book Too Much of a Good Thing, is about my generation’s parenting style, about how we tend to hover, over-managing our children, trying to make everything right for them and by so doing depriving them of opportunities to develop character and become resourceful human beings. Summer camp is the Me Generation’s antidote to our micro-managing parenting. Kindlon, who spoke recently at a camp director’s conference I attended, believes in camp as a great place to foster children’s independence and resourcefulness.
I would hate to imply that parents have a negative influence on their children, but as a parent of three children whom I adore, I only want the best for them, and I own up to having pretty high hopes. As a parent I can’t help having an agenda for my children. Try though I might to set them free to be their own people, I confess it’s hard for me when they are less than successful, less than well-mannered. As parents we all have our lists of expectations. Giving our children time out from us, in a safe and nurturing place, allows them to discover who they want to be, and how valuable they are. When she was 12 my daughter said to me: “Mommy, you have to tell me you love me and that I’m great. But when my counselors at camp tell me that, I know it’s true.”
Summer camp involves a procedure called a parent-ectomy, which can be painful at the outset. In order to soothe the pain (called homesickness) both parties to the procedure (parents and children) may long for contact . We get our campers through their homesickness by bonding with them and running them off their feet. We don’t allow campers to use the phone, fax or email, because our experience is that instead of making the adjustment to camp, a child in constant communication with mom and dad will expect them to make everything perfect…. or else. “We want campers writing home and not e-mailing, for example because writing forces a deeper synthesis and analysis of ideas. The modest speed of a written letter exchange leaves time for personal reflection and development of coping skills and social connections.”
If you allow kids to have cell phones they make it a habit of calling home over every argument with their friends, if they were mad at their counselors because they made them do their share of cabin cleanup, or if some large or small thing upset them. Instant communication encourages kids to call the parental rescue squad instead of letting us help them solve their problems. It discourages their development of resourcefulness and communication skills. Being able to ask for help, say your needs and get support is a grand life skill, one best learned by doing.
You have to have trust in us, as experienced camp directors that we are in the best position to not only advise and help solve any potential issues but we are in the best position to understand the overall picture in an objective matter. At the same time we look forward to communicating directly with you to also get your advise and support where necessary. In the end by sending a message to your child that you have trust in us, you give your child the confidence to come forward and learn those life skills while also allowing us to be far more effective in solving the concern.
Camps have evolved, are far more sophisticated and are more aware of their responsibility in ensuring your child is safe emotionally and physically. We know it’s hard to not have contact so at Manitou we allow you to call us at any time and we give you a full update at the beginning of camp. This way your child still benefits from the essence of camp but you can also relax and know your child is in good hands.
We raise our children anxiously in an unsafe world, and it is genuinely difficult for us to let go. Which explains why parents are such easy targets for those who market instant communication with campers.
But the irony is the cold comfort offered by these gimmicks. The road to seeing your child’s face on their camp’s web pics is strewn with potholes. I’ve heard from parents of kids at tech-friendly camps that their anxiety level was raised when their child seemed to be frowning in pictures, or they couldn’t find their child in a picture for a few days. Accustom parents to twice-weekly emails from camp and they panic if one doesn’t arrive.
Sending your child away to summer camp requires a terrifying leap of faith, a decision to entrust that which is most precious in your life to other people. We as your Camp Directors give heart and soul to making camp the safest possible place in the world for children, both physically and emotionally, and parents who send their children to us have to trust us. Neither emails nor webcams nor web pics can substitute for that choice to trust a camp to do right by your child.
by Joanne Kates and edited by Mark Diamond