It’s a summer tradition and a rite of passage, but why do send our children into the woods each summer armed with their sleeping bags, sunscreen, and two extra pairs of socks?

In 1979, my parents took me to a little YMCA camp on the South Mountain in Pennsylvania. They were well-adjusted, happily married, middle-class people who loved their 3 children, but they dropped their oldest son off at a camp at the tender age of 7. They had never visited the camp, had not gone to it themselves, and knew none of the staff working in the program. What were they thinking?

I hated my first camp experience. I was slow to make friends as a child – particularly that first summer – and had not benefited from watching an older sibling make his or her way through the world. I didn’t understand that every family, school, or house of worship had their own traditions and customs that were different from mine. It was intimidating. I won’t even get into the camp food. I left on Saturday morning with an awful case of poison ivy swearing I would never return. To my parents’ credit, they just smiled and said “we’ll talk about it later.” The next summer, they pushed me to go back. Their philosophy was that any experience could go wrong once – give it a second try and then make your decision on whether or not to return.

As an adult now working in camping, I asked my parents why they sent me, and in later summers my brother and sister, to Camp Thompson. In various ways, they told me that they hoped we would get a better “sense of ourselves”. They felt a sleep-away camp offered us the opportunity to grow as individuals while learning about others in an intimate setting that can only be created by living with 8-10 other children for a week. 30 years later, are we different from our parents?

Recently I posted a poll on LinkedIn that asked parents what they hoped their children would get from their summer camp experience. 47% of the parents responding indicated that they wanted their campers to Gain Independence. 30% responded with the hope their children would Gain Self-Esteem. 15% wanted their campers to Make New Friends. Only 5% indicated that they wanted their children to Learn Traditional Values or a New Skill.

Perhaps our reasons for sending our children away to camp have not changed that much in 30 years, even as society and technology have rapidly evolved. Perhaps we all hope our children will make their annual summer sojourn into the woods and return knowing a little more about themselves.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

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