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Learned Independence: The Things We Pick Up at Camp

Why would a loving mother voluntarily send her child to summer camp for a whole summer?

Throughout my life, my mother has always been, to put it lightly, a constant presence. Since I was a child in school I have been the beneficiary of daily interrogations and not-always-solicited advice. Throughout college my friends joked that they had never met anyone who talked to their parents as much as I did while my mother lamented that I never called, and it’s more likely than not that my phone will buzz even as I write this blog.

And while this communication isn’t particularly abnormal (and is something I am usually grateful for), it does beg one paradoxical question: How did a mother with the impulse to constantly communicate send her children to sleepaway camp for summers at a time? The distance from Florida to Maine is more than a stone’s throw, two 10-minute phone calls cannot span the distance of the Atlantic Coast, and I frequently addressed my required letters to our family’s dogs. So how did this uniquely attached mother of three part with her children for 3.5 to 7 weeks each summer? Quite simply, she thought it was best for us. And as a somewhat seasoned camp veteran who has experienced summer camp as both a camper and counselor, I’d have to agree with her.

Of course there is the independence factor, one that has been emphasized and eloquently stated in several other articles: children who go to sleepaway camp learn to coexist and cohabitate with others which serves them throughout life, particularly as college freshmen (and even upperclassmen). And this is very true. However, one aspect of the independence that I believe is understated is the things kids learn to do on their own because of sleepaway camp.

They learn to make friends by themselves. Last summer, on a rainy day in mid-June, I consoled a crying eight year old who felt homesick and alone on his first day of camp. When I suggested he try to make some friends at camp, he responded “I don’t know how, my mom always makes playdates”. Within two weeks he had found a best friend who had been a stranger in the springtime.

They learn to make plans. I definitely grew up in the playdate generation – parents made plans with other parents to determine the precise time and location of childhood mingling – and this schema for socialization hasn’t changed much in the past two decades. But at camp? Campers plan board game excursions during rest hour, and basketball games during free play. They make plans that are completely untenable and plans that they will forget an hour later, but they learn to navigate the concept of “let’s do something”, and begin to figure out a framework for making their ideas possible.

They learn to maintain relationships. When your best friend is hundreds of miles away for ten months a year, you learn to develop the ability to forge friendships that can span the distance. This is different for different people – in some cases, it means calling (or texting, probably – for me it was AIM) on a daily or nightly basis. For others, it’s the simple ability to rekindle a ten-month dormant friendship as if a day hasn’t even passed. Children who attend camp learn what it is to feel the presence of someone who isn’t always present, and this will serve them well as they grow older and their worlds expand.

And they learn to say goodbye. Perhaps the most difficult part of one’s camp experience lies in the simple fact that it ultimately comes to an end. You cannot be a camper forever. Through their summers at camp, children learn what it is to love a place, cherish it, and step away when the time comes. They will learn to hold memories in their hearts, and how to continue to grow as they say goodbye to a home away from home. This skill – the ability to love something to the fullest and eventually let it go – is one that will carry your child throughout their life, and one that will ultimately help them develop the empathy and emotional understanding that is crucial to human relationships.
These tools stay with children throughout their lives, and the development at camp helps shape them into the people they will become. I certainly missed my family while I was away – and moreover, my family certainly missed me. But at the end of the day, my experience at camp – like that of so many others – was worth every minute and every summer. And as it would happen, my mother agrees.

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