Mosquitos, Black Flies, Leeches, Hunger — The Benefits of Summer Camp

Campers and staff of Camp Becket of the Becket...
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Need a break? Not you, your kids. Send’ em off to summer camp, says author Wendy Mogel:

Mogel has gained a loyal following as the consummate anti-hyper-parent since her 2001 book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. The book draws on the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud to encourage parents to back off, let kids make mistakes, endure bad moments and learn self-reliance.

The event this Sunday will be her first time speaking in Canada, but she has delivered her message to camp organizations across the United States.

“In an era when the default position is overprotection, over- indulgence and overscheduling … camp is a wildly potent antidote,” says Mogel.

She broke her leg riding bareback at camp one summer but stayed and learned to fish.

As Mogel wrote in a 2006 article in Camping Magazine: “Kids, at camp you will get all kinds of valuable gifts; you will get homesick, other campers will be mean to you, the food won’t be great, you’ll be cold and hot and hungry … I hope all of this will happen to you because otherwise you are deprived. Of life. Of its thorns and its roses.”

I grew up in a non-hot-house family and in a time when kids were actually allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, our young lives filled with boredom and empty hours — that we learned to fill with our imaginations or own activities.

I went off to summer camp, every summer all summer, from the age of eight to the age of 16. I loved it.

I attended three different camps, all in northern Ontario, and am still friends with a few of the girls I met there. I can think of few life-shaping, character-altering experiences more powerful than finding a sleep-away camp you love. I discovered a deep, powerful and abiding devotion to a life spent often outdoors; learned how physically strong and capable I am; learned that I could make new friends. I even learned, at 16, I had leadership skills when I was elected by fellow campers to a role that demanded planning, ideas, creativity and motivating dozens of girls my age and younger.

Every month, we’d put on a musical and I usually won the lead role — anyone want a chorus of “Just In Time”? I played my guitar and sang songs I’d written at our Sunday evening talent shows. My confidence speaking publicly is a direct result of stepping onto a stage year after year, building my skills and starting to trust them. Unlike boarding school, where the focus was on obedience and endless achievement, camp was a place to test new ideas, skills and muscles, to renew and deepen friendships, to learn to trust our counselors. We earned and won badges for our skills — J-stroke, jibing, canter — but the larger point was trying, not winning.

When you’re out on a week-long canoe trip, in the rain on an enormous lake with a headwind, what choice do you have? Whine, bitch, moan, give up? No. Paddle hard, belt out some great paddling songs, and get to the next campsite. Nature is becoming an abstraction for many kids now, spending 7.5 hours a day attached to media-providing devices.

Nature is powerful and beautiful — and can kill you. But not if you learn to read a map and compass, how to give CPR, how to do an Eskimo roll or shoulder a 60-pound canoe over a muddy mile-long portage. Camp can teach you that.

5 thoughts on “Mosquitos, Black Flies, Leeches, Hunger — The Benefits of Summer Camp

  1. James Finn Garner

    I did a five-day backpacking trip with my son and the Boy Scouts last summer in Michigan. At the time, he looked at it as one more thing I was making him do, “building his character” he’d say in a sarcastic voice.

    But I think deep down, he was intimidated by the prospect, and in the end was proud of what he accomplished (not that he’ll ever let me in on that).

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Ten or 20 years from now, I suspect he’ll remember that trip fondly, even if he’s not admitting it right now.

    Did you enjoy it?

    And, quite seriously, what DO kids do these days to “build character” if they spend their lives glued to Xboxes and PDAs? The idea is to face some hardship and challenge, surmount it and know, henceforth, you can. Without a few tough challenges — preferably public so others are facing them with you as well — how do you know what you’ve really got?

    The sense of pride and accomplishment one can get in the outdoors is hard to match in some ways.

  3. Hilary Shenfeld

    Agree, Caitlin, that summer camp is an incredible experience. One of my daughters loves it so much that she actually gets campsick — the opposite of homesick — when she gets home after a month away.
    Of all the things I give to give to my kids, camp is among the best.
    Popping up now are camps for adults, which seems intriguing, and I’d love to have a good excuse to make s’mores (wait, I don’t need a good excuse!). But I think camp hits at just the right time for tweens and teens who can learn so much about themselves and the world while their brains haven’t been completely cluttered by jobs, families and other responsibilities.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    We would all weep hopelessly the day we had to leave camp, and I longed all year to return. The depth of friendship at camp still seems unique — it lacked the competitiveness, social or academic or athletic, of school or sports teams.
    I felt most valued and welcomed at camp for all my skills, from singing to sailing. I think that’s a terrific gift for every kid, to know they are “well rounded” and to cherish all those sides of themself.

    Of all the experiences I had growing up (and we traveled a fair bit, which I enjoyed), I would put camp very near the top of the list, if not at the top. It teaches kids so many things, in a non-annoying, non-test-focused way. I look at how kids are raised now and think, even more, they really need this sort of break.

    My camp has alumni canoe trips every August and one of these years I am going to go. I really miss the view of the world from the inside of a canoe. Only campers know what a “lily dipper” is.

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