My Kid Was Made For Camp. I Was Not.

I only remember one friend who went to a sleepaway camp as a child. She desperately wanted me to attend the same camp so it could be ‘even more fun’ but her descriptions left a pit of fear in my stomach.

“We run a mile each morning when we wake up.”

Wait, what? Gym class in the summer? How is that fun?

“And you can totally ignore the prayers, just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.”

I did one better by not telling my parents about the camp and then telling my friend my parents had said no. I didn’t know Jewish camps existed when I was a kid. I doubt I would have wanted to attend regardless.

We never went camping in tents as a family. We have a ‘cabin’ (i.e. three bedroom house with microwave and Nintendo) less than 2 hours outside the city where I spent my late elementary and middle school summer days on a lawn chair reading. There was a daily swimming break and after dark, we played monopoly or in later years went into town to rent a VHS tape. We went many weekends but returned to suburban life during the week where I spent most of my time on a lawn chair reading.

The only camp I went to as a child was playwriting camp the summer before my senior year of high school. We stayed in the dorms at Hamline University for two weeks. During the day we took writing classes taught through the Playwright’s Center, and in the evenings they took us to see shows around the Twin Cities. As you may notice, I use “camp” in the loosest possible terminology to describe that experience. It was also one of the best experiences of my childhood and was a great glimpse into the college life I’d be starting a year later.

My husband grew up on a farm and camp was not something he had time for. He attended a month long boys camp in northern Minnesota once as his only childhood camp experience. He loved it.

When our oldest was in 2nd grade we were presented with the opportunity to send her to Camp Ramah for three nights. We had no specific affection for any of the various Jewish camps we had become aware of since joining the Twin Cities Jewish community and thought it sounded like something our extroverted oldest would enjoy.

Oh boy did she enjoy it.

As an almost 8-year-old who had only had one sleepover at a non-family members’ home a few weeks before camp to practice, she got on the bus without a bit of anxiety. She asked me how many kids were in the program. I told her it seemed about 75. She announced since “I already know two kids from home so I get to make 73 new friends.”

After her initial trip, we looked into going to family camp for later that summer. A week-long visit that would cost less than a week in a hotel was appealing. Friends described all the fun things there are to do. Zip line, swimming, tennis. I tentatively asked if you HAVE to do those things; can I just bring a bunch of books? I’ll admit I was relieved when an out of town wedding sent us that exact same week to New Jersey rather than the middle of Wisconsin. Last year three nights became 12, and we were always a little surprised when friends and family commented that she was so young to be gone for so long.

Are you kidding? My kid? My kid was made for camp.

She just wrapped up her third summer at camp. She was gone a full month at the age of 9. This year the timing worked out for us to attend the visitor’s day. I don’t know if camp (overnight or otherwise) is right for every child. I know it’s great for our oldest, but I thought it would be a good idea for our less extroverted younger child to see the camp before we ship her off next summer; and I admit I was really curious to see what camp life was like. Why did she love it so much? Did I miss out on something in my childhood? Is it the type of experience away from home or more simply about the time away from home?

We arrived halfway through lunch (we took an unplanned scenic route at the end), and I was immediately overwhelmed by the noise and people. While we frantically shoveled in what was left of the buffet lunch, they began after meal prayers. I was taken aback by the enthusiasm with which they were sung. While I’m sure it’s not true, I felt like the only person in the room unfamiliar with these prayers. I was happy to still have food to focus on.

After lunch our daughter took us on a mile-a-minute tour of her second home. We heard about the structure of their day. Arts, physical fitness, Jewish education, family style meals and lots and lots of bonding. She greeted and hugged other campers and counselors the way I’ve seen actors work a room at a cast party. I looked around for the lone kid sitting and reading that I could identify with. I saw a few here and there, but for the most part everyone seemed happy to be there moving from activity to activity. My daughter informs me there is an hour of quiet time daily, but it’s still scheduled down time. Is this just a generation thing and my age is starting to show?

My husband had the glint of wishing in his eye as we wandered around the camp. Like my oldest, he’s quick to pick up conversation with a stranger, make room at a communal meal, or invite others to join in on whatever the fun of the moment is. He feels happy and calm in nature. I am always on alert for bugs.

I kept looking at my younger child to see if she seemed excited or overwhelmed. We decided to spend our free time swimming. I stayed on the shore chatting with parents I know from home while my husband and the kids went into the still chilly water. She wasn’t fazed at all by her first lake swimming experience and I found myself biting my tongue to not encourage the fear or wariness I would have felt at her age. Let’s face it, I’m still wary of all the kumbaya of camp. By the time dinner was over I was happy to be heading home and felt like a scrooge for it.

She’s been home two weeks now and there is still the occasional lament that she’d rather be at camp. After a month at camp with no screens at all, she was only slightly annoyed when informed we had made the decision the entire family would not watch TV for the month of July and the children only get one hour a day on the computer. She has also come home with more willingness to accept that our family runs best when everyone participates. The day she came home I announced she was now officially in charge of feeding the cats. With no complaint, she has taken over the task with never more than a single reminder. She makes her bed most mornings out of habit from camp and there is SLIGHTLY less argument about showers and grooming habits in general. Her eyes light up when she tells me about the singing lessons she had at camp and the thrill of singing in front of the entire camp.

She’s already registered for summer 2018.