Tag Archives: Camp Seneca Lake

Overnight Camp: A Kiss and Tell Account

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Summer camp was the best gift my parents ever gave me. At overnight camp, everyone shared clothes, shaving cream, stationery, and secrets. There were no locks: only doors that creaked and banged to announce comings and goings. On Friday nights, I sat at a fire-circle facing the quiet lake, chanting prayers and singing songs in Hebrew: songs, which, until then, had felt strange and foreign to me.

At camp, everything made sense, and when I linked arms with my friends, I felt a peaceful connection to nature as if G-d had fashioned a golden cord that started from the sun, zig-zagged over to the stars, dropped down to earth, and connected every one and every thing. All at once, I wanted to stay there forever.

In 1979, I was 11-years-old. Our camp director invited a bunk of boys and girls to his cabin for a “special” evening program. It was dark outside and the yellow glow from a single bug light cast strange shadows over everyone’s faces. I remember sitting outside his cabin, the one with the peeling paint, feeling excited. Expectant.

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Click photo to see other work by Sonia Poli

When the director emerged, he carried an empty wine bottle tucked under his arm. He explained the rules of a game called Spin-the-Bottle. Before that night, outside of relatives, I’d never kissed a boy my own age before.

After what seemed like hours, the bottle pointed at me. Shimmying to the center of the grassy circle on my knees, I leaned in toward my partner and when our lips met, I gave his bottom lip a little tug with my teeth. He pulled away from me, looking terrified.

“What happened?” somebody asked.

“She bit me!” The leery recipient of my wonky kiss moved back to his place in the circle where he checked to see if I’d drawn blood.

Later, when we girls laid in the darkness atop skinny mattresses, we dished about the game, rehashing who had smelled nice and who had the worst breath and who we wouldn’t mind kissing again. If we had to.

Don’t get me wrong.

It wasn’t appropriate.

But it was fun.

Looking back at the summers of my youth with an adult sensibility, I see how the tail end of the 70’s “free-love” ideology contributed to a climate and culture that became unsafe for campers and staff and, in some ways, that carefree mentality precipitated the desire, perhaps even the need, for the tedious forms we parents have to complete today.

But for a little while, it worked.

Once upon a time, overnight camp was a place where it was okay to be a wee bit naughty.

No one cared if we scribbled our names on cabin walls.

Or if we snuck into canteen to eat a few extra candy bars.

If we showered during a thunderstorm.

Or if we practiced kissing.

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Mmmm.

I suppose I’ll always feel nostalgic about the summers of my youth. For a few weeks, we got lost in a kind of magic.

Nature provided the perfect backdrop: the lake sparkled in the sun; blackberries hung from bushes heavy and ripe, waiting to be picked and shared; leafy trees rustled in the darkness as we hurried down dusty roads toward something that felt close to love.

Without television, email or Internet, we really were cut off from the outside world. Together, we pretended time was standing still even though we knew it was racing forward. Is it any wonder we fell into each other with our mouths wide open, without asking questions?

What do you remember about summer camp? And if you didn’t go, do you wish you did?

tweet me @rasjacobson

{NOTE: Sunday, my son left for 7 weeks at overnight camp. He’d better not do any of the things I did. Also, I’m joining the peeps at Yeah Write. Such a great community. Come check us out.}

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If You Really Need To Get There

I am a huge advocate of summer overnight camps for children. Tech has been going since he was 9 years old and he recently hopped on the bus for a 1-month stint. Here is something I wrote when I was longing to go back to camp. In the name of research, I actually had to go and make the trip. It was fabulous.

• • •

If you really need to get there, get on the New York State Thruway and drive pretty fast. Get off at exit #42. Go through the tollbooth. This may take a little while because there are only two lanes, and one is for E-Z Pass users only. In front of you, you will see a Mobil station. To the right, you will see a motel. A few years ago, it was called Gus & Nancy’s. I don’t know what it is called now. It doesn’t matter. The place looks exactly a it did in 1978.

Take a right onto Route 14S. Drive for a while. See Northrup Plumbing, Heating and Cooling. See the Rollerdrome, boasting a new blue awning. If it is summertime, see the yard sales brimming with glass.

See the sign that boasts Geneva is the “Lake Trout Capital of the World.” I used to laugh at this sign, but these days, I suppose it’s as good a designation as any other.

See the houses that sandwich the Sunoco Station that was charging $4.26 a gallon for gas on the day I last passed through. If it is hot, see folks sitting on their porches. And on chairs under trees. See the shirtless boys riding bikes in the road. See the babies in sagging diapers standing on the sidewalks.

If you haven’t been on Route 14 in a while, brace yourself. The old ice cream stand that used to be on the corner of North Street has been torn down. Kentucky Fried Chicken is gone, too. It’s okay. Keep going. Pass “Family Dollar” and a furniture store called Aaron’s. Remember Alice’s Restaurant? It used to be on the left, just before you’d cross over the railroad tracks? Alice is gone, but Nonna’s Trattoria is there, so the décor hasn’t changed much. There are still red, white and green flags flapping in the breeze.

A little further down the road and you are in the epicenter of Hobart & William Smith’s night-life. How do I know this? Because I am a graduate from William Smith. Friends joke that half of the reason I chose William Smith is because of its proximity. They are not wrong. I knew where I was, how close I was. How fast I could get there. Take a right. Any right. They’ll all get you to the right place.

If you are idling in front of the First Methodist Church at Main and Seneca, prepare to take a left. See the multi-colored row houses that flank the left side of the road. Good. Now look quickly to your right.

Pulteney Park, Geneva, NY

Pulteney Park, Geneva, NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you don’t look quickly you will miss her: the Lady of the Lake, kneeling in her fountain. If you get close enough to her, you will see that her nose is cracked.

How do I know this? I used to live in one of those faded green apartments behind her. In 1989, my address was 1 Park Place. If I opened my bedroom window and craned my neck, I could see the road.

The road that would take me there.

If I needed to get there.

Keep going. Pass the fraternity houses with their fat pillars, the Deltas and Betas and Gammas and all the other ancient Greek symbols.

See the benches on the left.

On a clear day, it is there that you will catch your first real patch of blue: Seneca Lake stretching out before you. I spent a lot of time on those benches. But in a car, things happen fast. The lake is a blur.

Keep going. Pass Geneva on the Lake on your left, promising waterfront lunches on the porch for $15.99. Pass the American Legion Hall, situated right in front of the historic Belhurst Castle. I ate at The Castle once, with someone I loved. A bat flew about the dining room as the waiters haplessly tried to catch it by throwing tablecloths over it.

See the Seneca Lake Country Club. See Geneva Rod and Gun. A little more blue, a place where the sea gulls cluster. See Kashong. Say it a few times aloud because it feels good, the way it holds in the back of the throat. Suddenly, there are wineries, stalks attached to wires training branches to go this way or that. There are the old wineries — Fox Run and Wiemer — which have been joined by Seneca Shore and Anthony Road and Prejean. The buildings are huge, a little industrial, and you can feel their newness. Just when it starts to feel uncomfortably new, pass Darryl’s Garage. Little Green — the camp truck — had lots of sleepovers there. But Little Green is gone too.

See the ‘T’ in the road. Mr. Twistee’s on your left. And that light. That flashing light. You have a choice. Only there is no choice.

You know where you are going.

You could go left to Dresden. You could go right to Penn Yan. Maybe stop at Lloyd’s for a free poster and some chicken wings. But you don’t.

You know how close you are.

If you are a die-hard, your heart, you’ll feel it. It pumps. It pumps.

If you wait to see the mailbox, you’ve almost passed Camp Road, that beautiful, awful, bumpy road. The road that separates real life from camp life. If your windows are open, close them. Because no matter how slowly you approach, your wheels will kick up dust that settles everywhere. And if you are lucky, that crazy, magical camp dust will surround you, envelope you, get inside you and make you fall so in love with a place that, upon leaving, you will weep for missing its dust.

See the bee boxes. See the Mennonite children running in the fields, the girls in their long blue dresses and thick black boots; the boys in their white shirts and suspenders. See the corn. Notice how short it is in June. Remember how tall it will be in August. Pause at the railroad tracks. (Everyone knows someone who knows someone who almost got hit by a train.) Turn down the music. Look to the left, to the right. Cross over to the camp side of the tracks. Pass Gypsy camp. Bear left. See the green fence and the slightly ominous sign that reads: “All Visitors Must Check In At The Office.”

Am I a visitor? Am I family?

My heart. It pumps. It pumps.

You can’t tell me I’m not home.

What do you think about the idea of sending your children to summer camp? Have you ever gone back as an adult to visit a summer camp that you loved? How did it feel? What did you remember?

(For more on why I think summer camp is fabulous read THIS and THIS.)

tweet me @rasjacobson

Put Sleep-Away Camp on the Must Try List

This is the 1st in a 3 part series about why I send my child to summer camp. It first ran last June when my blog was in its infancy, and I had 3 subscribers. It seemed like the right time of year to run it again — especially as I’m starting to pack up Monkey for his 4th summer at overnight camp.

photo by Jill Butin Neuman

It happens each summer. People ask about our plans, and when certain folks learn that our child spends three solid weeks each summer at overnight camp, I am met with looks of incredulity and sometimes horror.

More often than not, people gasp and say things like: “I could never do that,” as if to imply that I somehow force my son to pack his trunk and duffel and get out of our house. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I didn’t let him go, he would consider that the biggest punishment – ever!

Sometimes I get a variation on the theme: “I would never do that.” This response is extra excellent as it is packed with a little judgment, which I really appreciate. This response implies that I am somehow harming my child, perhaps inviting trouble into his life because I won’t be there to oversee his every move 100% of the time. (Can you imagine?)

When people respond this way, I sometimes get a little snarky and say, “At least this summer he came home with nine fingers.” (Insert a dramatic pause.) “Last summer was a disaster.” I know people  imagine pedophiles lurking around the showers or picture their own children drowning, their heads being held under water by rowdy unsupervised troublemakers. These are their issues.

For me, overnight camp was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me, and I feel fortunate that my husband and I are able to pay this gift forward to our child. Here’s what overnight camp gave me and continues to give children who attend each year:

1. Continued Independence. Each August, Monkey and his posse of buddies hop on the camp bus and return with a kind of “we-can-survive-without-our-parents” vibe. I once asked my son if anyone ever gets homesick. He shrugged, “Usually, our counselors keep us too busy to even think about being homesick. If it does happen, it is usually the new kids – but once they get into it and get comfortable with the routine, all that homesickness goes away,” then he added, “Plus, we take care of each other.”

2. Benefits of Communal Life. Living in a bunk with 8 or 9 “summer siblings” affords kids the opportunity to develop some amazing problem solving skills. If there is an argument, instead of a parent swooping in to the rescue, the boys generally have to work it out by themselves. That means using their mouths to directly communicate their feelings. Sometimes they aren’t so great at expressing the subtle nuances of their emotions, but – again – they have each other to lean on. If things ever escalate, they have counselors and Unit Heads to help them.

There are other benefits of living in a large group. Boys learn to respect each other’s property, tolerate each other’s quirks, and appreciate each other’s boundaries. Everyone sees each other at their best and their worst selves. Summer camp goes a long way towards undoing that horrible “entitled” attitude. The spoiled girl quickly learns when her peers have had enough of her whining. Kids are patient to a point, but when an entire bunk is angry at you, it is time to take a look in the mirror. Campers quickly learn that despite the fact that a person cannot always get what he wants, everything usually turns out okay in the end.

3. Time Away from Technology. Okay, so when I was young, there was less technology, but I still missed Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and General Hospital. These days, kids are so connected to their social networks, their email accounts, their Apps, the Internet, their Skype. They are used to the constant buzz-ping of each new text message as it arrives. Being unplugged from most technology allows kids to connect with each other, a valuable skill that seems to be getting lost a bit these days. My son reminds me, “We can have iPods, so if someone needs some alone time, he can just pop in the ear buds.” Staff members have told me that after a few days, many kids begin to prefer people to gadgets, and rather than tune out, they start to look for other campers to “hang out with.”

4. Connection to Nature. While our family is fortunate to live in an area with plenty of access to great parks, during the school year, many children just do not have a lot of spare time to go outside and play. My son says, “At camp, we are kind of forced to appreciate nature. It’s easy to forget, but once you start walking around, you can’t help but remember.” Camp Seneca Lake has over 200 acres to explore. Trails to blaze. There are squirrels, field mice, lots of ants and millipedes; there are raccoons and skunks and deer. There is a beautiful lake with a beach that consists of zillions of flat shale rocks, perfect for skipping. What more could a kid want?

5. Opportunity to Try New Things. I like to think of CSL as a “liberal arts” camp. Unlike sports camps where kids learn the skills necessary to specialize in one venue, at CSL kids have the opportunity to try new things simply because they have access to so many opportunities they may not have at home.

The “non-jock” can try floor hockey or excel at Ga-ga, a weird game I’ve never seen played outside of summer camp. There are plays in which kids can perform; an art barn where children can make jewelry, throw on the potter’s wheel, batik, make candles, draw, paint, make just about anything. (A far cry from boondoggle – although they have plenty of that, too.) At Athletics, they can practice archery, basketball, tetherball, softball, tennis, ping-pong – and any other land sport you can think of. The waterfront offers canoeing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, sailing, banana boating — even opportunities to swim-the-lake! Picky eaters might even try something new because the kids work up a real appetite trying all these incredible activities.

Did you attend  to attend overnight camp? What is your favorite memory? If you didn’t go, would you let your kids go? Why or why not?

The Secret Benefits of Being a Summer Camp Counselor

As summer winds down, it seems like the perfect time for the 3rd part in my 3 part series on the benefits of summer overnight camps.

Most staff members at summer overnight camps would likely agree that moving from camper to staff is one of the most difficult transitions they have to make. One summer, they are the kids being entertained and – shazzam! –  the next, they are the adults in charge of making sure their own campers are safe and happy. And while being a counselor is one of the hardest, most exhausting jobs, it can be one of the most rewarding jobs they will ever have. It is not uncommon for staff to feel everything from relief to sadness when it is time to pack up and leave. Whether they love it or hate it, the experience of being a camp counselor often becomes a powerful source of strength and a knowledge base from which they can draw on their entire lives.

The long-term benefits of working at a summer camp include:

1. Experience working with kids. Working with children provides staff members with opportunities to be empathetic, problem-solve, be creative and silly, and learn new ways to relate to others. Most people eventually become parents, aunts, uncles or just have some other special relationship to a child. Kids offer amazing opportunities and lessons that, hopefully by having an opportunity to work with them, staff members learn to appreciate an enjoy more. That said, working with kids can also be fabulous birth control. I’m serious! While plenty of people enjoy working with children, few actually realize how hard a job it actually can be, and, at camp, that job is 24/7. While working as a counselor, many staffers realize Whoa, I do NOT want to be a teacher, or a pediatric dentist, and I do NOT want to have kids any time in the near future. These are all good things to know about oneself.

2. Gaining leadership experience. Campers live and breathe for their counselors. They watch them and imitate them. As a counselor, staff members get to feel the responsibility for actions of others. Staff may be asked to teach an activity while ensuring the safety of the campers but also making it fun and exciting for them. Regardless of the job titles staffers may earn later in life, the best camp counselors develop integrity, accountability and compassion — all traits that every employer, partner and friend look for, making former camp counselors valuable assets to people’s lives. Case in point: Once, I was visiting a summer camp on the day they were holding their annual 5K Bug Juice Run. It was a 90+ degree day, and my nephew, a staff member at the time, had started a hobby group to help train campers to prepare for the big event. He was so far ahead of the pack at the second lap, I was certain he would win the race. But suddenly, he disappeared. The kids lapped him once, then twice, making me wonder if he was okay: Could he have fallen? Could he be bleeding? Eventually, he emerged from the woods — running full-tilt, making up for lost time, he wound up winning the 5K. When it was all over, I asked him, “Where did you disappear to for a while there?” He said, “Oh, a camper overheated. She was dehydrated, and I thought she might have heat exhaustion, so I stopped to help get her something to drink, cool her down. I waited until someone else could come and be with her before I took off again.” I was beyond impressed by my nephew’s willingness to put his competitive streak aside to take care of another human being.

3. Experience putting others first. My youngest nephew is now an overnight camp counselor. Recently, on his day off, he went scouring garage sales, looking for little props to bring back to camp. He found a bunch of crazy hats, and he was really pumped about bringing his loot back to camp. Why? Because at camp, people appreciate individuality: The counselors who are most remembered are the ones who are the loudest, the ones who are willing to wear wacky clothes, the one’s who are willing to cross-dress, all in the name of fun! Every employer appreciates a free-spirit; someone willing think outside the box and take a little risk.

The communal nature of camp often requires counselors to put the needs of the group ahead of their own. Yes, there are plenty of times when counselors can have fun with another staff member, but there are also moments where counselors are expected to be their for their own bunks despite their immediate desires. One never knows when a tiny disagreement between campers could turn physical; staff members have to be there ready to deal with confrontations, homesickness, real sickness (schlepping campers off to the infirmary), helping with hygiene — especially with the littlest ones. None of these things have the appeal of a giant mudslide or a fabulous campfire s’more, but they are part and parcel of the job. Camp counselors are truly surrogate parents for as long as the kids are at camp, and our children count on them to put them first.

4. Gaining independence by making new friends and being in a new environment. At my son’s summer camp, many staff members are local but some are international and hail from New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Poland, Mexico and other places I’m sure I’ve forgotten to list. Since they did not attend camp as campers, sometimes they feel a little bit isolated being thrown into the camp routine, especially if they are nervous about their English competency. But whether they are native speakers or longtime-campers-turned-staff, ultimately everyone develops his or her own core group of friends who bond just like the kids — through common experience and their own cheesy inside jokes. And for staff who are new to a camp, going into a new experience without knowing a soul and coming out the other side successful is an amazing feeling!

5. Summer Lovin’. Many staffers experience their first real relationships at summer camp, away from the prying eyes of parents. There is hardly a better place to experience young love than at camp as nature provides the perfect backdrop: sunny days; a sparkling lake; leafy trees that rustle in the darkness; berry bushes to collect and share fruit, quiet places to sit and be still with another person. At my son’s summer camp, it is not uncommon for people to meet, date and later marry. To date, over twenty-five successful unions have their roots at Camp Seneca Lake. It’s not that surprising when you think about it, really: People who go generally share a similar background, are often paired up as a result of liking similar activities, and – as I have said before – camp provides that place to live with people and really get to know them in an unplugged way. Camp couples know how to communicate with each other. If couples can continue to stay in touch once summer camp is over, they stand a good chance of being able to make things work for the long haul in the real world.

6. Makin’ Major Connections. I am pretty sure that I am not speaking only for myself here, but nearly 30 years later, I still put Camp Seneca Lake on my resume. Why? Because someone always says, “You went to Camp Seneca Lake? My mother/brother/sister/cousin/friend/wife went there!” We chat about the experience a bit, and 95% of the time, I have ended up getting a job out of it! People recognize what it means to have spent one’s summers working one’s butt off to make other people’s children happy. It says a lot about a person’s character and work ethic. While they are in the moment, most counselors probably think the biggest benefit to being a staff member is getting to go into town and get pizza once in a while! Not so! If a person does things right, he should leave camp with a solid recommendation from the camp director! So to all you parents of camp counselors whose kids are just completing their summer experiences, don’t forget to remind them to put “Camp Counselor” on their resumes: What they did, how many kids they were responsible for, how many weeks they worked, how many people they worked with (or worked under them, if applicable). Sad as it may sound to them, eventually everyone does grow up and has to find a real-world, four season job! And sometimes camp friends land really great ones! Sometimes camp friends even start their own companies! There is major power-networking to be done if summer friends stay in touch with each other! Just another secret benefit to being a camp counselor.

What lessons did you take away from being a summer camp counselor?

Why Overnight Camp Rocks: Part II

This is the 2nd part of a three-part piece on why I send my child to overnight camp. Click HERE to read part I.

As I mentioned in my last entry, there are definitely parents who buy into the whole ethos of sending one’s child to overnight camp. This entry is not written for them, as that would be preaching to the choir. Really, these pieces are for all the people who have ever looked at me sideways, gotten all judgmental on me, and wandered off whispering to a friend after I have proudly admitted that I send my son to summer camp. And yes, he has been going since he was 8 years old and, yes – eventually – instead of a mere 3 weeks, he will likely spend his entire summers there.

If my last entry didn’t convince you, here are even more benefits to sending your child to summer camp:

6. A chance to be a little bit naughty. Some of my favorite camp memories involve being a little bit “bad.” We girls would raid the boys’ cabins, get all their underwear, and hang them on the flagpole in front of the dining hall. Then, they, of course, would get us back. We would stay up way past our allowed bedtimes (at home) and torment the on-duty counselors in the village, claiming there were ghosts in our cabin. (Really. There were. Three of them.) Sometimes we refused to participate in a particular activity – just because. We were kids exercising a little bit of control that we knew we probably wouldn’t have gotten away with at home. My son said that one of his favorite “naughty moments” happened one year when the counselors and campers threw rotten plums, mustard and ketchup  at each other. “It was like getting slimed!” he exclaimed. He mentioned that a few kids also “smeared shaving cream all over each other”; these are things campers all across the country do each summer, but to kids, these oldies but goodies are eternally new. And of course, all of this programming is created and orchestrated by a very capable staff who oversee everything and make sure no-one gets  too out of control.

7. A chance to get down and dirty. During the school year, kids worry so much about their physical appearance. They want the “right” clothes from the “coolest” stores. At camp, with the exception of a few special programs, campers can relax and not worry about their clothes or their hair. If it rains, they can cover themselves in mud, go mud-sliding, make mud pies, and then  wash-off in the lake. They can have a huge all-camp Color War that goes on for days and culminates in one crazy event like a giant colored water balloon contest and laugh as the inky ballons explode on impact. Heaven help me, but they can go to bed without brushing their teeth. They can even go to bed with dirty feet. Now I may be an extreme neatnik, but it’s hard for me to imagine even the most mellow parent appreciating a mud-covered kid lounging on the couches or dragging funky feet over freshly vacuumed carpets. At camp, anything goes when it comes to good, wholesome, messy fun.

8. A chance to make lifelong friendships. When people live together for extended periods of time – adopt the same schedule, perform the same daily rituals, sing the same songs, chant the same cheers, share the same inside jokes – a community is formed. And when people return year after year, this community becomes a kind of family. Many of the people I consider to be my closet friends are the people I went to summer camp with nearly 30 years ago. Some of them live nearby, some of them live farther away. These relationships ebb and flow, but I feel confident when I say that I have a core group of folks whom, I believe, that if I needed them, I could count on them to be there for me. To loosely quote James Taylor, I could just call out their names, and they’d come runnin’…

9. The opportunity to rediscover my spouse. During the year, husband and I tend to become so child-centered that we often toss our own interests aside. Even our connection to each other sometimes falls on the back burner. It’s always there; it’s just that sometimes it’s on a low simmer. While our boy is off enjoying himself at camp, we can refocus our energy and rediscover each other — which is nice. So after he is done with work, hubby gets unlimited, guilt-free golf; and I get to swim and write and write and write without interruption. We eat later than we usually do, and we talk about adult stuff. We go out with friends — often with plans made at the last moment — and never have to fuss about making sitter arrangements. We watch movies that we have been putting off forever, and we even have a chance to make plans about the future as individuals and as a family. We are dangerously free, which is kinda nice. Honestly, alone-time with the spouse is not to be minimized!

10. The Big Reunion. Unlike Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and unwittingly lands in Wonderland, or Dorothy from Kansas, who accidentally lands in Munchkinland after a tornado carries her house away, there is nothing accidental about our son’s departure. The week before he leaves, we create a “staging area” where we label all his clothes. We make a very intentional trip to The Dollar Store for glow sticks and decks of cards, whoopee cushions and over-sized sunglasses, and all kids of other goofy kid stuff that he can use while at camp. He packs his favorite books and magazines and a few packs of gum. And, believe me, that kid is psyched! That said, like anyone who has ever journeyed from home for a while, while one certainly appreciates the change in scene, the people, the opportunities to do things you have never done before – perhaps you never thought you’d ever get to do – at the end of the journey, it always feels so good to go home. We are all reminded of the meaning of the words “fortunate” and “grateful” and “love.” Our son remembers how comfortable his bed is, and we are amazed at how quickly children grow.

For a few days, I don’t mind when my son carelessly tosses his sneakers about or that he forgets to put his dishes in the sink; I realize he’s out of practice. I don’t mind the seemingly endless loads of laundry, the piles of important rocks that he’s brought home, and I actually enjoy washing a few extra dishes because I am just so happy we are together again. I kind of love that 80% of his sentences start with, “When I was at camp…” or “Did I tell you about the time at camp when I ….”

What can I say? It’s in his blood. He drank the bug-juice and loves it.

Why Overnight Camp Is Nothing To Be Afraid Of

This is the 1st in a three part series about why I send my child to summer camp.

photo by Jill Butin Neuman

It happens each summer. People ask about our plans, and when certain folks learn that our child spends several weeks each summer at overnight camp, I am met with looks of incredulity and sometimes horror.

More often than not, people gasp and say things like: “I could never do that,” as if to imply that I somehow force my son to pack his trunk and duffel and get out of our house. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I didn’t let him go, he would consider that the biggest punishment – ever!

Sometimes I get a variation on the theme: “I would never do that.” This response is extra excellent as it is packed with a little judgment, which I really appreciate. This response implies that I am somehow harming my child, perhaps inviting trouble into his life because I won’t be there to oversee his every move 100% of the time. (Can you imagine?)

When people respond this way, I sometimes get a little snarky and say, “At least this summer he came home with nine fingers.” (Insert a dramatic pause.) “Last summer was a disaster.” I know they are imagining pedophiles lurking around the showers or picturing their own children drowning, their heads being held under water by rowdy unsupervised troublemakers.

These are their issues.

For me, overnight camp was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me, and I feel fortunate that my husband and I are able to pay this gift forward to our child. Here’s what overnight camp gave me and continues to give children who attend each year:

1. Continued Independence. Each August, sonny boy and his posse of buddies hop on the camp bus and return with a kind of “we-can-survive-without-our-parents” vibe. I once asked my son if anyone ever gets homesick. He shrugged, “Usually, our counselors keep us too busy to even think about being homesick. If it does happen, it is usually the new kids – but once they get into it and get comfortable with the routine, all that homesickness goes away,” then he added, “Plus, we take care of each other.”

2. Benefits of Communal Life. Living in a bunk with 8 or 9 “summer siblings” affords kids the opportunity to develop some amazing problem solving skills.

If there is an argument, instead of a parent swooping in to the rescue, the boys generally have to work it out by themselves.

That means using their mouths to directly communicate their feelings. Sometimes they aren’t so great at expressing the subtle nuances of their emotions, but – again – they have each other to lean on. If things ever escalate, they have counselors and Unit Heads to help them.

There are other benefits of living in a large group. The boys learn to respect each other’s property, tolerate each other’s quirks, and appreciate each other’s boundaries. Everyone sees each other at their best and their worst selves. Summer camp goes a long way towards undoing that horrible “entitled” attitude. The spoiled girl quickly learns when her peers have had enough of her whining. Kids are patient to a point, but when an entire bunk is angry at you, it is time to take a look in the mirror. Campers quickly learn that despite the fact that a person cannot always get what he wants, everything usually turns out okay in the end.

3. Time Away from Technology. Okay, so when I was young, there was less technology, but I still missed Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and General Hospital. These days, chances are that your children know how to do things on your computer and cell phone that you had no idea could be done. During the school year, older kids are addicted to their social networks (Facebook and MySpace), their email accounts, their Apps, the Internet, and IMing. They are used to the constant buzz-ping of each new text message as it arrives. Being unplugged from most technology allows kids to connect with each other, a valuable skill that seems to be getting lost a bit these days. My son reminds me, “We’re not totally cut off. We can have iPods (there is no Wi-Fi access), so if someone needs some alone time, he can just pop in the ear buds.” But staff members have told me that after a few days, many kids begin to prefer people to gadgets, and rather than tune out, they start to look for other campers to “hang out with.”

4. Connection to Nature. While our family is fortunate to live in an area with plenty of access to great parks, during the school year, many children just do not have a lot of spare time to go outside and play. My son says, “At camp, we are kind of forced to appreciate nature. It’s easy to forget, but once you start walking around, you can’t help but remember.” Camp Seneca Lake has over 200 acres to explore. Trails to blaze. There are squirrels, field mice, lots of ants and millipedes; there are raccoons and skunks and deer. There is a beautiful lake with a beach that consists of zillions of flat shale rocks, perfect for skipping. What more could a kid want?

5. Opportunity to Try New Things. I like to think of CSL as a “liberal arts” camp.

Unlike sports camps where kids learn the skills necessary to specialize in one venue, at CSL kids have the opportunity to try new things simply because they have access to so many opportunities they may not have at home.

The “non-jock” can try floor hockey or excel at Ga-ga, a weird game I’ve never seen played outside of summer camp. There are plays in which kids can perform; an art barn where children can make jewelry, throw on the potter’s wheel, batik, make candles, draw, paint, make just about anything. (A far cry from boondoggle – although they have plenty of that, too.) At Athletics, they can practice archery, basketball, tetherball, softball, tennis, ping-pong – and any other land sport you can think of. The waterfront offers canoeing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, sailing, banana boating — even opportunities to swim-the-lake! Picky eaters might even try something new because the kids work up a real appetite trying all these incredible activities.

There is more to say, and I will, but I would also love to hear from you.

Would you allow your child to attend overnight camp for an extended period of time? Why or why not?