Summer Camp Changed My Life

Sending your kids to sleep-away camp is a gift that you can give them

My older daughter will turn 11 this summer. I realize that makes her basically old enough for sleep-away camp. While part of me (the hovering part) wants to grab her, hold her close and never let her go off on her own for one or two weeks (or, gasp, a month!), another part wants to shove her on the bus and happily wave her off.

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 north of my hometown of Montreal, a switch flipped. Suddenly, I wasn’t a not-very-popular girl whose parents were divorced, who was 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 (!), a yellow raincoat, plaid lumber jackets and wool socks, all purchased on the cheap from an army surplus store. And there were no parents — the only authority was our counselor staff, who were just a few years older than us and 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 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. 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 Summit girls’ section, submerged myself into the minty, shaded forest, and trekked through swarms of nipping mosquitos and past bunches of possibly poisonous but still cool-looking plants, I would eventually, somehow, emerge right where I wanted to be, in front of the flagpole in time for morning roll 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-size pitchers of thirst-quenching “bug juice.” 

Right now, countless parents are weighing whether enabling their children to live away from home for sleep-away camp is valuable, doable or wise. What trouble will they get into away from parental supervision?

But as I consider when to send my two girls for their first overnight camp experience, I’d argue that camp teaches the kind of values and character development that parents most want for their kids. Kids learn to function and thrive independently, skills that might make the difference between your kid succeeding at post-high school life despite challenges and ending up back in your basement after “failing to launch.”

The time and space to explore boundaries, and learn to manage freedom smartly and safely, is priceless. 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.

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.

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