The Sleep-Away Camp Challenge
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The Sleep-Away Camp Challenge
Mom with a View

The Sleep-Away Camp Challenge

Camp requires one of the biggest parenting challenges of all -- leaving our kids alone.

by

When my 14-year-old nephew went to sleep-away camp for 6 weeks this summer, he was allowed one phone call home. It was a very short, mostly monosyllabic "Camp is good; talk to you soon" conversation.

My teenage daughters get slightly more phone time but pressure from the line behind them limits the duration of the call. It's a variation on my nephew's theme with a few more inquiries about the rest of the family -- niece and nephew in particular -- and Good Shabbos thrown in.

Not so the girls at Lake Bryn Mawr Camp in Pennsylvania, whose parents apparently call with such frequency and have so many demanding requests that the camp now employs a counselor for the parents (no boating, swimming or arts and crafts necessary).

And I feel sorry for all of them -- the parents, the kids, and particularly the besieged and beleaguered counselor!

One of the big opportunities of camp is for our children to learn a small degree of independence, to discover what they can and cannot do, what they really enjoy, and perhaps what they are less fond of. We thwart their growth by robbing them of this experience -- by complaining about their activities (or, as in one case in this NY Times story, arranging private ones), by monitoring their happiness minute by minute (some parents can now view the cabins and campers via online photos and disturbed to see that sometimes little Susie is not smiling -- is that never true at home?) and worst of all, by bringing them home when they fuss.

I've endured some pretty painful calls (clearly violating the rules about not calling home) from kids who ended up having the best time of all. And even for those who don't, the sense of failure in leaving early is more damaging than a few boring or lonely weeks.

At camp, kids learn some basic cleanup skills (can I brag about my daughter's bunks 10+ neatness grade?), some laundry skills and most of all, some interpersonal and conflict resolution skills. They are thrown together with the other girls 24/7 and they have to work their issues out (even when someone dares to touch their things or sit on their bed!). They learn to negotiate the complicated weaving of new friendships and old ones. They learn about kindness and about sharing (woe to the camper who hoards a care package!). They learn about team spirit and how to really create unity through everyone's involvement.

And they have fun. Part of that is due to the lack of parents in the picture (like it or not, we are background players here). By calling the camp constantly (everyday for some of the parents profiled), by creating individual visiting days and specialized out of or in camp experiences, these concerned parents are actually depriving their offspring of the essential aspects of the camp experience.

In a misguided effort to help their children, they are hurting them. They come less mature instead of more grown up.

It doesn't have to be that way. Camp can be fantastic. Your home can reverberate for months afterward with the stories, the cheers, the songs and the phone calls. All it takes is one of the biggest parenting challenges of all -- just leaving our kids alone. And if their team doesn't win color war, well...they'll get over it. In fact, they've already forgotten about it.

Published: August 16, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) carole, December 19, 2008 3:19 PM

One size does not fit all.

There is no one right answer where camping is concerned., There is no one camp that fits everybody's needs. Jewish enrichment is important for Jewish children, but the overriding issue is that the camp should stress sportsmanship, tolerance, how to coexist and sensitivity to the feelings of others - especially those who don't perfectly fit the mold. Oftentimes, families, counselors and campers get so caught up in the ideology of the camp or it's religious outlock that they overlook the obvious.

(10) anon, August 25, 2008 6:32 AM

op-eds such as these

opinions are just that -- the author of this article stating her own, narrow opinion. She is okay w/ camps not allowing children to call because it worked out for her children. I left camp early and was glad my parents gave me a sense at all times in my life that I could always run to a safe home. I worked in camps -- and saw a lot of abuse, young girls assigned as counselors harming younger girls. there is no vacation time as a parent. a child should be able to call home and tell her parent, "my counselor made me sleep outside on the grass last night" (which I had put a stop to at one camp I had worked in). Where in the Torah do you find any precedent for throwing the kids to the wilds (like the Indians making them camp and survive on their own?!). I'm glad your kids were fine, but the camps are creating horrible trauma for some of the weaker kids by not letting their parents hear their sorrows and not giving the children the option to "fail" as you seem to think and "succeed" as I seem to think - by going home, where children should be.

(9) Mikha'el Makovi, August 23, 2008 5:46 PM

Sleep-away camp: Fantastic

I first attended sleep-away camp when I was seven years old (the summer after first grade), and I continued to attend the same camp for ten years, finishing when I was sixteen years old (the summer after tenth grade). How do I remember them? The best times of my life. I still come close to crying when I picture that camp in my mind, and I'm probably one of the most intellectual non-emotional people out there. How much parental communication was there? Campers had to send one to two letters a week to their parents, no rules on how lengthy thee had to be. Parents could send letters at will. No cell phones. Average stay of the campers? One month. Absolutely fantastic, and essential I think for any child's development. It gave me and the other campers a chance to be free from home, in a new environment, to play sports all day long without any inhibitions on time, and the release from the cares of school-life. Absolutely essential.

(8) Anonymous, August 22, 2008 12:32 AM

there are exceptions to this philosophy

I was miserable at sleepover camp the years I went. I had AD/HD and was the victim of ongoing child abuse - surely these factors combined to make me lonely, and somewhat picked on by others. Braverman's points are well taken for the typical child, but there are many of us who were not typical children. Some children, because of home factors and/or temperament, can't simply roll with the puches and work things out. Camp staff need to be sensitive to these issues.

(7) Anonymous, August 21, 2008 1:05 PM

Camp Not for Everyone, Sorry

All the skills learned at a sleep-away camp can be learned at home. There are many of our rabbonim who do not recommend sleep-away camps, even for older kids. I agree with the mom who wrote that she would much rather be doing fun stuff with the children. I agree 100 percent that Hashem gave us children to love and look after. It's sad that so many parents don't know how to get through the summer weeks with their kids.

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