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Summer Camp Changed My Life

Sleepaway summer camp for girlsMy older daughter is nearly 8. Not old enough for sleep-away camp yet (in my book) but getting close. I was 11 or 12 when I first went to camp, and I spent one or two months away from home every year after that until I was almost done with high school.

Summer camp changed my life.

I still can’t say exactly what it was about camp that turned me into a different girl every summer. But somewhere between the sweaty city limits of my boring, urban childhood universe and the mountainous, leafy world of “Up North,” a switch flipped. Suddenly, I wasn’t a not-very-popular girl whose parents were divorced, laden down with homework and a mortifyingly uncool coat, waiting for the bus in the slushy, frigid winter.

I was free, mixing with a different crowd of kids from dozens of different schools. The usual cliques were nowhere to be seen. I had a duffel bag of awesome camp gear: desert boots, union-suit pajamas with a rear that unbuttoned (!), yellow raincoat, plaid lumber jackets, wool socks, all purchased on the cheap from an army surplus store.

The days stretched out from chilly, foggy mornings through hot afternoons and rain-stormy nights with nothing but fun activities and whom to dance with at the Saturday night social to worry about. And no parents for a couple hundred miles — the only authority was our counselor staff, just a few years older than us and so, so very cool.

It didn’t look like much when you first arrived, my camp: A weathered wooden archway, a dirt path, just wide enough to admit a maintenance truck, or an overheated school bus, its windows yanked down to circulate a warm summer breeze, the chatter of 70 kids (from the Northeast city of Montreal) flying out into the dusty country air.

There was no logic to its layout; even after several summers there I still couldn’t really find my way anywhere — how do you get to the farm again? (Is there a farm?)

But it didn’t matter. The snaking, foot-worn paths all converged eventually, so that if I stepped out of the far reaches of the Kinnerit girls’ section, leaving the ancient wooden bunks with their 50 years of peeling, camper paint behind, submerged myself into the minty, shaded forest, and trekked through swarms of nipping mosquitos and past bunches of possibly poisonous but still quaint-looking plants, I would eventually, somehow, emerge right where I wanted to be, in front of the pointing flagpole in time for morning call, or outside the round squat dining hall. Twenty years later I can still hear the clanking of metal camp cutlery and the slosh of industrial-sized pitchers of thirst-quenching “bug juice.”

But that place taught me a lot. Right now countless parents are weighing whether enabling their children to have sustained time away from home is valuable, doable, wise, even kind. What trouble will they get into away from parental supervision?

But camp teaches kids to be better people. Learning to function and thrive independently might make the difference between your kid succeeding at life despite challenges and ending up back in your basement after “failing to launch.” The precious time to explore boundaries, and learn to manage freedom smartly and safely, is priceless in the development of the self. Give your kid time away, and they will give it back down the road tenfold. It will help them become leaders, develop grit and character, learn empathy for others and tap into their dreams.

Sending your kids away is a gift that you can give them, when they’re ready, which will stay with them forever. Although it’s hard to imagine letting my little girls leave for three or four weeks, I hope when the time comes they will be able to experience that summer world of camp and the lessons it has to impart.

There were lots of things I had to overcome in order to enjoy summers away from home ­— my fear of bugs and dirt and anything "gross," for one. My shyness around new people. My picky eating habits. My total inability to clean up after myself (thanks, mom, for being such an amazing home organizer).

I experienced a lot of firsts at camp: My first time swimming across the intimidating maw of a real (big!) lake. My first time sailing a boat on my own. My first homesickness. My first time acting in a play. And during my last summer, my first real love. We zeroed in on each other at the Saturday night social that first week, my heart thumping nervously, his drumsticks sticking out the back of his jeans pocket. That sweet first romance, under the impossibly bright stars of a mountain summer, will be with me all my life.

Do kids do bad stuff away at camp? I won’t lie. Sure. I snuck out the summer I was 15, stoked to make it with a band of friends to the lone convenience store on the highway, where we spent our dollars on candy and junk food only to have the owner happily take our money then quietly call the camp to turn us in. Our counselors were half annoyed and half proud.

But I also did things I never would have done in real life: I completed multiple five-day canoe trips — mini-excursions away from regular camp and into the true wilderness, navigating past a suspicious moose, building a fire and cooking meals over it. I tackled my fear of bodies of water. I wrote chants and led teams and wore body paint and tried archery. I opened myself up to some of the deepest friendships I have ever known. I learned to shower next to spiders.

Most importantly, I tapped into a tribe that stretched back long before me, that helped anchor me to my own life: The tribe of my camp, with its generations of wooden plaques and rustic rituals, its dirt paths and canvas tents, and its magical grasp on my heart.

nataliebig_histo_edgeIn between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and their two school-aged daughters.

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