I vividly remember picking up my then ten-year-old daughter, Bethany, after her inaugural week at camp. While I envisioned her jumping into my arms, she merely shot me a friendly smile with a wave before returning to her new-found friends. In the moment I was disheartened, but more than a dozen years have proven that experience to be an important first step in her journey towards independence.
But with the countless activities available that encourage individuality, why camp? “Because I am a product of camp,” says former camper Allie Denton, who found North Carolina’s Camp Hollymont on the internet as a girl. “I had seen a movie of an all-girls camp in the mountains at ten-years-old and immediately knew that was what I wanted. That summer, my parents made a bold move and put me on a plane to North Carolina to attend. After two weeks, I was hooked,” says Denton, who returned each summer and later served as the assistant director.
While it is certainly normal and healthy for parents to protect and provide for their children, going away to camp offers kids a true first try at doing some things for themselves. “Camp not only gave me authentic confidence,” says Denton, “but also forced me to move forward in learning conflict resolution and respect for others and their differences.”
Although the camp experience is rooted in childhood, its influence often grows with kids, even throughout college. “Not only was going away to college easier, but accepting people’s differences once I was there came more naturally to me,” says Denton.
Different families obviously have different ways of doing things, and camp is the perfect place to learn respect and move to common ground. “In fact,” says Denton, “when I later had the opportunity to go to South Africa and study abroad, I kept looking back at my ten-year-old self, reminding myself if I conquered fear of the unknown then, I could conquer it now.”
Denton adds that her time in South Africa turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences of her life.
“But I’m not sure I could have done it without the camp experience. You can’t take a big leap until you take a small step.”
Mom Lisa Waggoner has packed up her four kids for camp from the time they entered first grade, and has been delighted with the impact that camp had on her kids.
“Not only did camp foster independence and self- discovery, it also gave them the chance to be themselves, without making them feel as if they had to reinvent themselves,” she said, adding that there is a difference.
In his book, “Homesick and Happy,” author Michael Thompson, PhD, highlights the experience of one 14-year-old boy, David McDonald, who discovers his talent not for sports or swimming or horseback riding, but to his surprise, glass blowing, at camp. “It changed the way I felt about myself forever,” says McDonald.
Camp helps kids discover and develop what they excel at and what they like, one camp counselor told me. Admittedly, archery, water skiing or any new attempt can be a bit of a reach for kids, but trying new things in that safe atmosphere is part of the secret sauce of camp. And it’s the fun that keeps them coming back every year.
Community, tradition and independence are all a part of what camp offers. “A place to make mistakes and skin their knees; growth in a controlled environment,” says Denton. “You can’t purchase that at a store.”
As the mom of 10, the time comes every few years for one of my children to fly. I feel like I have done my job when they go forward confidently.
“Doesn’t it make you sad when they are so ready to go?” Mom Dot, my mother-in-law, often asks me when another one leaves the nest. No, I tell her. I would rather have them eager to go find their lives than hiding under their beds.
In my experience, summer camp is a safe, solid first step in the journey.
Margie Sims is a writer and mom of ten who lives with her family in Fairhope. Her book, Launch: Preparing Your Kids for Takeoff, releases in October.