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Why send your kids to camp?

At camp kids become a little more resourceful, says free-range parenting expert Lenore Skenazy

By: Lenore Skenazy

The kids were rolling their eyes. The parents were dabbing theirs. Homesickness loomed…

For the parents.

That’s the scene I witnessed not too long ago as dozens of kids were boarding buses to go to overnight camp. If the younger folk were worried about being separated from their parents and pets (and iPads and iPhones), the older generation looked positively stricken by a combination of love and anxiety.

Why send your kids to camp?

"Kidsickness" is the new word for this parental problem

“Kidsickness” is the new word for this parental problem. But, to their credit, none of the moms or dads stowed away on the bus—so off their kids went for better or… Better.

That’s the thing about camp. Kids leave, tears well and then—the transformation begins. If kids grow the most when they’re asleep, they do it double-time at camp, for almost the same reason: they are transported to a different realm. When I asked on my blog if any parents had personally witnessed this phenomenon, one mom wrote:

“My son has some learning disability issues. He is rather disorganized most of the time. When I sent him to Scout camp for a week this summer, I was convinced the kid would come home naked. But he brought home every single thing he took. Even brought home someone else’s socks by accident. He dealt with wet sleeping bags, unfamiliar tentmates and ‘the worst bathrooms in the UNIVERSE!’ Since then he has not lost a single thing at school this year. He has been voluntarily taking more responsibility in many departments of his life. This summer, I’m sending his brother, too!”

What would make all that maturity kick in? A change in expectations.

At home—at least, in my home—a sock on the floor eventually gets picked up, usually by a darkly muttering me. At camp—well, really, who else is going to pick up your kid’s sock? Not some 19-year-old counsellor. And so a new habit takes root.

At home—at least, in my home—a sock on the floor eventually gets picked up, usually by a darkly muttering me. At camp—well, really, who else is going to pick up your kid’s sock? Not some 19-year-old counsellor. And so a new habit takes root.

Of course, sometimes the hygiene experiment goes the other way. I heard from one parent who said her daughter spent an entire week not changing her socks at all. But believe it or not—that’s good, too (so long as you’re not the one sitting next to her on the way home). Being away gave that girl the chance to try something a little wacky, a little daring and very memorable. Lucky her! You don’t want your kids looking back on their childhoods and only remembering sitting in the back seat of the family SUV.

Without us around, kids also become a little bit more resourceful. After all, when they’re at home, we tend to intervene. Our culture has trained us to.

Without us around, kids also become a little bit more resourceful. After all, when they’re at home, we tend to intervene. Our culture has trained us to. A recent letter to a parenting magazine asked: If two friends are old enough to stay home alone, can the mom run out to the dry cleaner’s while the kids have a play-date? No way, the magazine replied: she has to remain close by to “make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”

Our marching orders are clear: Solve our kids’ problems. Unfortunately, that can hold them back. But send them away and the squabbles and confusion that are a natural part of growing up get resolved by—guess who? Your amazingly resilient child (especially if you don’t call or text them every day, which is like constantly pulling the scab off a scrape).

Letting them go means letting them deal with some low moments.

Letting them go means letting them deal with some low moments. Another note to my blog said: “I hate to fink on my little sister but when Sis went off to her first week-long camp she started cranking out the ‘I hate this place I’m going to die please come get me!’ letters the minute she got there. I think we got three letters in two days, then the next day it was, ‘Well, I guess it’s not so bad. I’ve made a friend.’ Guess who wound up singing at Sis’s wedding 17 years later?”

Lucky for “Sis,” her parents didn’t swoop in and bring her home after those first few days! Look at the gift their restraint gave her: lifelong friendship. And for some kids, that’s not just a perk, it’s a lifeline. Perhaps camp’s most amazing attribute is that it wipes the slate clean. Kids who were unpopular or even bullied back home get to re-invent themselves:

“When I was growing up, I was the kid everyone picked on,” recalls a woman named Jen. “In my school there were no cooties. There were ‘Jennifer germs.’ Camp was the only place I got to be me.” With no one from home at her camp, “No one knew they were supposed to pick on me,” she says. Instead, she made friends—even a boyfriend. “That shot of self-esteem every summer got me through the dreary and awful school year.”

Camp was such a godsend that Jen now works as the camp nurse one week every summer. She’s happy to pay back what she got as a camper: hope.

Not to dwell on the dark side of things, but Canadian young folk are having a hard time of it lately. Maclean’s reports that, last year, Ryerson University’s counselling centre saw a 200 per cent increase in demand from students in crisis. A full 25 per cent of university-age Canadians report having experienced a mental health problem.

Camp isn’t the answer to every emotional issue, but clearly it’s the answer to some. Because along with all the fun, tans, memories, mosquito bites and lifelong friends, kids are getting something soul-deep: the confidence to take on life’s ups and downs.

When the kids come back in August, there will be tears again, mostly of joy. But also expect a little bit of campsickness…from both generations.

—Free-Range parenting expert, Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids. Her TV show “Bubble Wrap Kids” airs on Slice.

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