I grew up in a community where summer overnight camp was just standard, even beginning at the wee ages of 7. I watched as our local camp store would be jam-packed with families holding lists and preparing for and buying the necessary camp items to survive the summer away. I saw as my cousins counted down not only to the day the bus picked them up, but to the years they would be old enough to be eligible to go for four weeks, then six weeks, then the entire summer totaling eight weeks. There were several options for overnight camp in Michigan, but it seemed that our entire community gravitated toward one.
Without a doubt, overnight camp presents tremendous benefits for a child. It provides various activities, particularly physical ones, and several experiences that are unique and extremely valuable in developing independence and life-long skills. Overnight camp fosters social relationships through bunks, group functions, and challenging activities requiring teamwork. In addition, it encourages children to explore and overcome fears through the natural environment.
It only seemed appropriate for my parents to provide me with the same opportunity, and to sign me up as well. My first experience was a 10-day overnight session. I asked to go, and looked forward to it…until the day the bus was scheduled to pick me up and take me away to camp. Tears streamed down my face as I waved goodbye to my parents through the half-open bus window. Every muscle in my body tensed up, and I suddenly wanted to jump back out and stay home. But, I didn’t.
I don’t think I ever stopped crying once waving goodbye. We pulled up to the camp, and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I missed my mom already. I followed directions, was assigned to a bunk, and dragged my massive, heavy duffel bag, with my name embroidered on it, across the grounds.
I decided that day that I hated camp. Not only did I already miss my mom and dad, but I trembled at the thought of taking a shower outside, sleeping on a top bunk bed, and eating in a dining room where the food looked tasteless and inedible.
But really, more than anything, I missed home terribly. I couldn’t get past it. I woke up crying, participated in activities crying, and went to bed crying. Each afternoon, when it was time to write our letters to be mailed home, I begged for my parents to come pick me up. The stationary was soaked with tears by the time I finished. I even promised my mom I would eat her chicken without complaining… That’s how bad it was for me.
A few days passed, and it didn’t get better. In fact, it got worse. I felt so abandoned and trapped, and I sobbed to the person in charge to please call home and have my parents drive up to get me. But, they didn’t. Did they not care about me? Did they not understand how sad I was? Did they not read my letters that simply pleaded with them to come save me from the misery?
Now, as a parent, I get it. My parents cared, more than I will ever be able to imagine. It killed them more than it did me. As parents, it is our responsibility to put our children in activities that allow them to grow, gain strength and wisdom, and challenge them to conquer fears and anxieties. My parents knew how great overnight camp was, and that maybe if I gave it a few days, or a week, I would see the enjoyment and positive aspects of it. Their fear was that if they listened to my request and came to pick me up, then they would be giving into my nonsense, and I would, essentially, be giving up, which wasn’t what they were instilling in our family values.
So they continued to communicate with the staff at camp about my behavior and progress, and decided to let me stick it out. Their hope was that I would feel pride, accomplishment, and fulfillment by surviving something so emotionally and physically challenging and difficult. But, unfortunately, that was not the result. Instead, I felt traumatized, and never wanted to leave home again in fear I wouldn’t have the choice to come home if I felt the need. And, though I didn’t attend overnight summer camp again, I was presented with several short away trips through soccer. It was inevitable thereafter that every travel soccer experience created stress, anxiety, and extreme emotion that I was never able to control well.
This summer my son is attending “big boy camp.” At the mere age of 4, he will be picked up at our house by a school bus, just like all of his friends will be doing, and attending Beth Tfiloh’s Kindercamp, a day camp site off the premises of his preschool. A child who has already presented social anxieties and fear of leaving our house, I struggle with the anticipation of how he will adjust to this new environment. He is looking forward to going to “big boy” camp, but still asks questions daily leading up to it. It seems he is trying to figure it all out in his mind and how it’s all going to work. He shows glimpses of excitement, and then moments of uncertainty.
Like my parents, if he faces challenges, I will want him to give it a fair, lengthy chance before terminating his camp experience. But, at what point is it considered “torturous” for a child, or detrimental to their psychological development? It is, without question, a very fine line. And, while I hope he gets on that bus with a smile on his face and loves every second of it, I am trying to prepare myself for similar responses as myself. Because, ultimately, he is my son, and we share many of the same characteristics.
I will do my best to encourage him and make it the most positive experience, as my parents did for me. Ultimately, my hope is that I don’t have to make that important decision my parents had to when I attended overnight camp. It’s just not for everyone.