Sleepaway camp. It normally elicits strong reactions—either warm memories of childhood summers just beyond the reach of your parents or terrifying worry about what will happen to your children if you send them away just beyond your reach.
In our house, there was very little debate about whether our kids would go to sleepaway camp. I went to the Cheley Colorado Camps for a month every summer when I was younger, and Rob went to Boy Scout camps pretty regularly. Our debate was really centered on when they should start and how long they should be gone.
Camp was formative for our development, and we knew it would be for our boys as well. We ended up sending them to the same camp I attended in Colorado. They go for a month and have been since they were nine. This will be Davis’ third summer and Patrick’s second.
Every spring we get an email from the boys’ camp asking about our goals for their summer. They really work in partnership with parents on issues of childhood development and for that I’m so thankful. So, as I reflect this week on how I want my kids to grow this summer, here are some of the benefits we’ve reaped from sending our kids to summer camp:
Kids need to practice doing things for themselves, making their own decisions, and living with the consequences. As much and Rob and I try to help our kids practice their independence, there are times when we jump in too quickly to assist with problem-solving or decision-making.
At camp, my boys are in a loving, supportive environment, but without us—their parents—there to interfere. This isn’t just a few days away from home; they are there for a month. We’re talking about a prolonged period of independence, where they really push the boundaries of their coping and leadership skills.
Each week, they have to choose their activities. They have to take a shower every day, brush their teeth, and manage their clothing, without too much oversight. (I’m pretty certain the counselors provide gentle guidance, but peer pressure is also helpful.) They live with 12 other elementary school-aged boys in a cabin for a month and learn to negotiate with and support each other. Each morning they have to gather all their equipment to remain safe on their activity, whether that is horseback riding, rock climbing, backpacking, etc. These aren’t small decisions. Being in the middle of the Rocky Mountains for three days at a time means they have to prepare for multiple contingencies.
They also earn about living in a community and building character. At Cheley, they are intentional about developing a caring and supportive community, one in which the campers are accountable to each other. Early in the term, the campers develop a Code of Living: the rules they want to live by for the month. These are less like “rules” and more of aspirational statements about what makes a good community. They inspire my boys to strive for the greater good and propel them toward personal growth. (Check out how we use the Code of Living idea in our own home.)
Those hikes and backpacks they take? Those are all about teamwork. There is certainly individual effort required to peak a mountain, but when your buddy is struggling, thinking he can’t make it to the top, having a friend who encourages, supports, and helps him make it—that’s teamwork. The self-sacrifice, empathy, and self-control required to live with 60 other kids for a month and achieve real feats of physical endurance, teaches them the skills needed to rely on other people and thrive in the future.
Improve frustration tolerance and resilience.
As wonderful as summer camp is, things don’t always go the boys’ way. Sometimes a horseback ride they wanted to join fills up before they can sign-up for it. An afternoon thunderstorm might roll in and prevent the kids from peaking the mountain they are climbing.
Things definitely go wrong at camp—it’s a normal place, despite its magical feel. Friends squabble, dinner isn’t a favorite, a backpack is more physically demanding than expected, or a favorite horse bucks off your kids while he’s riding bareback. When these kinds of things go wrong at camp, the supportive community of peers and staff is there to cheer on and lift up your child. My boys know that the next challenge or the next accomplishment is just around the corner. They learn to try again and look ahead to the next opportunity, not dwell on today’s frustration.
Disconnect and decompress.
Camp is a place where kids can be kids. The pressures and stresses of home are left behind, along with the electronics and social media accounts. Camp may be high adventure, but much of the day is not scheduled; kids spend hours just hanging out with friends, without someone directing their activities. A backpacking trip is just as likely to result in a raucous game of capture the flag by a mountain lake as it is to end in a long conversation about friendships or traditions that kids have at home.
At camp, kids learn to just be. With all the research on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, parents are frequently looking for ways to help kids focus, slow down, and become more aware. At camp, that’s part of the deal. The pace is slower. The pressures are reduced, and there is more time to observe and reflect.
Not all camps are located adjacent to the Rocky Mountain National Park, but most sleepaway camps are located on large expanses of land, with access to the bounty of the natural countryside.
During the year, my kids get outside a lot: play in the neighborhood, enjoy local hikes, spend time in the Texas Hill Country. That doesn’t compare to spending a month in the mountains and learning to really live with their natural environment. They learn how to protect the earth, to share space with the animals that call the mountains home. They learn how weather, people, time, and natural disasters shape the ecosystem. They learn how to care for their horses and their own bodies. They learn about geology, botany, biology, and ecology.
More than all of that, they are awestruck on a daily basis. I love that my kids are amazed by the beauty and bounty of the earth, that they come home seeing our natural environment more clearly. They understand their role in caring for the earth. They pick up random trash on the ground (even Davis, who is very germ-a-phobic!)—not because they’ve been trained to pick up, but because every year they return with an increased reverence for our natural home.
Broaden their horizons.
At camp, my boys make friends from around the world: France, Japan, Ecuador, Mexico, inner-city Washington DC, Ireland, India. They learn about different cultures and pick up bits of different languages. They learn that although we eat different foods, speak different languages, and have different customs, at the heart of it people have more in common than not. Shared laughter and accomplishments create bonds stronger than national and cultural differences. They are learning to navigate the global community without realizing how important these skills will be for the rest of their lives.
They also try new things. We may live in Texas, but they definitely spend more time horseback riding at camp than they do at home. They learn how to groom and saddle a horse. They learn about mountaineering, pitching a tent, surviving in the wilderness, and cooking over an open flame. They work on ropes courses and learn to trust others in a profound way. They fish and shoot rifles and bows & arrows. They practice being in service to others, caring for their friends, and building community.
Each summer when our kids return home, I am amazed at the personal growth in each of my boys. They are more self-confident and self-sufficient. They are more tolerant of personality quirks, and they roll with schedule changes so much more easily! They know how to occupy themselves with nothing more than their minds. They are more creative.
I don’t send my kids to camp so Rob and I can have a month alone. Trust me—by the end of the term, I’m aching to hug and kiss my boys. I’m even aching to deal with their squabbles. The house isn’t the same without them here. But despite how much I miss them, I know that sending them to camp is part of their formation and part of their journey to become loving, caring, self-sufficient, socially responsible, empathetic adults.