My daughter J was 10 years old when she came home from day camp and announced, “Next year, I am going to sleepaway camp.”
I was a little surprised by her proclamation. She had attended the same day camp since she was 5 years old and absolutely loved it. Even though some friends had gone to sleepaway a few years before, she was positive the experience would not be for her.
I am not sure what changed her mind, but we told her we could visit some sleepaway camps that summer. After our first sleepaway camp tour, J decided this was the place for her so we put down a deposit.
Several months later I was knee-deep in name labels, camp t-shirts, duffels, sports equipment, and other camp crud. J was super excited and not the least bit nervous about her three and a half weeks away from home. I had mixed feelings. Neither my husband nor I had attended sleepaway camp, nor did my older daughter. I didn’t have strong feelings of nostalgia toward the experience like of many other parents did. I was also sad because I really hated the idea of J being away from us. I loved our family summers together and was not ready to give that time up.
Panic set in the night before J was getting on the camp bus. With her worried and fearful, I had to set aside my own reservations and be completely positive. I reassured her she would have a great time. J cried getting on the bus and I cried watching it pull away. I spent the next few days refreshing the camp website hoping to see a glimpse of my little girl.
That first summer was rough. J had fun but she was also homesick, especially in the morning. I wrote her every day and I waited anxiously by my mailbox every afternoon for reassurance that we had made a good decision in sending her to camp.
Her letters that first summer were not that upbeat. J wrote about the activities she was doing and then just a line about how much she missed home. I could not wait for the day we could pick her up at camp—so much so that when we got there, I jumped out of the still moving car just to give her a hug (my husband still makes fun of me that one: “She was gone three weeks, not three years!”).
J’s sleepaway camp experience could have ended there. One summer, a solid effort, but just not for her or for me. But instead, J continued to go to camp for six more years as a camper and she is now spending her second summer as a counselor.
While I did not receive that reassurance that first year that sleepaway camp would be life changing in a positive way, I did in the years that followed. J learned so much at camp including:
1. How to be self-sufficient. J found out that she didn’t always need me to help her handle life’s little problems. She could ask a friend or another adult for advice or she could rely on herself. That revelation was empowering for her.
2. How to get along with others. Living with your peers is a lot different than seeing them at school or having a one night sleep over. Living together means working together to keep the room neat and resolve minor conflicts. J learned that sometimes you have to put up with little inconveniences, like someone who needs to sleep with a flashlight on or who wakes up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom to keep harmony. These are life skills that will serve her well when she lives with in a roommate in college.
3. How to try new things. When she went to camp she had trouble cutting her food with a knife. Now she is the adventure counselor, tying knots for little kids on the rope course. J went to camp with a limited palate but at camp she was willing to try new foods. She went zip lining and waterskiing—activities our family would not have partaken in. She stood on stage in front of her peers to dance, lip sync, and put on shows. She became braver—willing to take a risk or put herself out there.
4. How to re-invent yourself. Even though there were other kids at camp from Millburn and Short Hills, J was able to make camp a special, different place. She didn’t just hang out with the kids she knew from home. She branched out and made a lot of new friends. Conversely, there were kids that she was not friendly with at home because they were in different “groups,” but at camp that didn’t matter. Camp is a place where you can redefine yourself. At home, J was more of an athlete but at camp she was also an actress.
5. How to live screen free. As a camper, she communicated solely with her voice, not her thumbs. She read books made of paper instead of watching television. She could not find out what is posted on Facebook and she realized it was OK not to know what all her “friends” are up to every second of the day. For the seven weeks of camp, she is fully present and immersed in her camp life.
Did I miss her when she was at sleepaway camp? Of course I did. But I also really liked the confident, more mature and independent person she returned as at the end of her summer away.
New Jersey Jewish Day Camps & Overnight Camps
New Jersey Sleepaway Camps: One-Day & Overnight Experiences for First-Time Campers