Why Sleepaway Camp May be the Best Thing for Your Kid (and You)


A Beam Camp project from the past, built by 65 kids and staff


Within the first few paragraphs of “Welcome to the Age of Overparenting” by Katherine Ozment, I had that uncanny feeling you get when a writer seemingly lifts your own thoughts out of your head.

This is where she got me: “I do my utmost to develop their minds and build up their confidence,” she writes about her kids, “while at the same time living with the constant low-level fear that bad things will happen to them.”

She makes light of today’s hyper-parenting, but she also quotes a ton of psychologists who think we’re harming our kids by being BFFs and praising them to death. Not that you can really blame us. Most of us were raised by parents who did not agonize over the merits of play-based vs. academic preschools and ice cream at playgrounds. In fact, most of our parents did not seem to agonize about us, period, and so we’ve become the uber moms and dads we didn’t have. Then technology ripped a giant hole in whatever connective tissue that was left between our childhood and our kids’.

This is the piece of the parenting puzzle that vexes me the most—how our texting and Facebooking and overall “screen time,” together and separately—will impact our relationship, and their development. At this moment, I can’t imagine being in constant contact with my kids. I don’t think it’s right, I don’t think it’s healthy, though I’m sure I will be texting my daughter in 10 years or less—or using some newfangled device, Digital E.S.P. maybe?—and getting freaked out when she doesn’t respond immediately.

But until then, I am still shocked by how attached we’ve become to our progeny. In one of the most (personally) surprising anecdotes in Ozment’s article, she relays a story about how, over the course of dinner at a friend’s house, the mother could not enjoy herself until she got her daily, emailed photo of her son at summer camp, and once she did, she spent the entire evening dissecting his expression. Was that a frown? Was he unhappy?

It seems sacrilegious that this quintessential, marshmallow-roasting, commune-with-nature-in-a-way-you-normally-don’t experience had become wired like the rest of the world. Equally disturbing was the thought of that parent who Cannot Let Go.

Then I talked to a few camp directors and parents, and it turns out: Photos or not, camp is probably the best thing we can give our tech-savvy, uber parented kids.

At Beam Camp in New Hampshire, co-founded by Brooklyn dad Brian Cohen—who is also introducing a new after-school program in Cobble Hill this spring called Ingenuity Workshops–campers swim, hike, and play games over 750 acres of mountains, lakes and woods, while also working together on fantastical projects that they build together with counselors. One of this year’s projects, conceived by an architecture firm in London, is “a new night sky of LED constellations controlled and navigated by a boat-machine.”

But beyond learning how to engineer awesome things, the kids also learn skills that are hard to come by today. Like writing letters. “It’s probably the only time that they do it and they love it,” says Cohen.

Many times they use letters to express loneliness—something that a parent or a friend would pounce on if that was broadcast via SMS or Facebook.

“I think everybody in calm moments can understand that that is not necessarily the best path to a kid learning to resolve their own problems and anxieties,” said Cohen.

At camp, kids get a chance to cope with their unhappiness on their own. It sounds so basic, but processing feelings without the aid of a cell phone or computer is a dying art, too. Just think of every teen or twentysomething you know who is constantly texting their parents or facebooking with friends. As Cohen put it, “You don’t get a chance to express something and have time pass and not have that feeling anymore.”

In truth, of the four parents of sleepaway campers I emailed with or spoke to, not one named letter writing as camp’s biggest draw. Most complained that their kids didn’t write enough. But when pressed, Amy Melson in Windsor Terrace spoke of getting “really sweet and moving” letters from her son Russell, who went to Beam for the first time last year at age 9 with his 14-year-old sister. For her, it was a success mainly because it introduced her children to things she couldn’t expose them to on her own. And it got them into nature. “There’s such a strong pull to play in that two dimensional world of the computer,” said Melson. “I’m just glad Russell had experience playing in the three-dimensional world.”

Incidentally, we are sending our kids into the 3D woods much later than we once did. Twenty to thirty years ago, said Renee Flax, the Camper Placement Specialist for the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey, “the bunks were filled with six-year-olds.” Now the average starting age is 8 or 9 for sleepaway camp, though camps are seeing a surge in attendance within this age group. (Of course, the price tag must hold some back: it costs roughly $5,000 for one month, not factoring in tuition assistance.)

Deb Winsor, who runs the popular Brooklyn day camp ConstructionKids, sent her son to sleepaway camp—Chewonki, in Maine—for the first time when he was nine. She cites a few reasons, and self-reliance is chief among them.

“It’s a first step toward independence,” said Winsor, particularly in the city, where kids are very rarely out of cell phone range. “In effect with a phone, you have a GPS device attached to your child.” Camp, she explained, is “really the only time your child will have free reign of their environment.”

The other benefit is the kind of relationships that he will cultivate. She mentions author and child psychologist Michael Thompson, who is currently writing a book and blogging about the summer camp experience, in which “he talks about the importance of intergenerational relationships.” In a perfect world where we all lived close to our big, extended families, a ton of cousins might fill the role of these cross-generational mentors. In reality, a large number of us are urbanites with only children and no family nearby, and so we often become a friend, sibling and disciplinarian in one.

“I just think a child should be more capable of making his own friends and finding emotional support from people other than us,” said Winsor. And camp, she feels, is one of the few opportunities to find that.

Cohen echoed her thoughts. “What’s really important about camp is the other adults,” he explained, particularly since the only adults in a child’s life are increasingly their parents and teachers. At camp, kids have the opportunity to form a true friendship with an adult who doesn’t discipline them, and feel like “this is someone who looks at me as a builder or a maker of things, not just someone who goes to bed on time.”

This, he feels, is the relationship that allows kids to grow the most at camp—and “it is that relationship that is most endangered with a phone call with a parent.” Hence the emphasis on letter writing, which nearly every camp encourages, and in some cases enforces.

The only policy that sleepaway camps seem to truly differ on is the amount of coddling they provide to parents.

A colorful production at Appel Farm Arts Camp

At Appel Farm Arts Camp in rural New Jersey, a sleepaway camp with programs that cultivate nearly every creative instinct, the prevailing feeling is that the more parents know, and see, the easier it is for them to let go.

“We don’t think these parents are crazy,” said Jennie Quinn, one of Appel’s Camp Directors, when I asked her what she thought of parents who need to see photos of their children each day. “It’s just a product of this age of connectivity. When you go from being so connected via text, it’s shocking to not hear from them at all for two weeks,” the length of their shortest program, and the one many first-time campers choose.

Starting around 2007—the year the iPhone was introduced—Appel’s staff began to notice an uptick in calls from parents, wondering how their child was doing. So rather than field calls as they came in, the camp (as have many others) began to take preventative measures. They hired a Camp Documentarian, who takes hundreds of camper photos a day and uploads them to a secure server that parents can log into.

(This is not that unusual—camps often have either a documentarian or, as in the case of Beam and Chewonki, a more casual policy of posting a few photos each week to a camp blog. Either way, it’s giving parents an unprecedented glimpse into their child’s time away.)

When parents do call in to say, ‘Why is my kid frowning?,’ the camp speaks to everyone in contact with the camper, even the camper herself, and then calls the parent back with “an honest, information-packed report, with enough details that they can really recognize their camper and picture them having a great time,” Quinn wrote in an email. And if the parent still can’t picture their child having a good time, they send the Documentarian out again to take another, hopefully happier photo.

In 2008, Appel’s staff also began sending parents of first-time campers a self-helpish DVD and CD packet by Chris Thurber, a psychologist who wrote his dissertation on homesickness prevention. (Deciding to send your child to camp without their ‘OK,’ it turns out, pretty much guarantees a homesick child.) Families watch the DVD together before going to camp, and parents pop in the CD on the way home. “It validates their decision,” said Quinn, and answers that ‘What did I do to my sweet baby?’ question that inevitably springs up.

And just to make sure the first-time parents are completely at ease, Appel’s staff also calls each one to deliver a quick lowdown of how their kid is doing, by day four.

“And then these families don’t call us for the rest of the summer. We’re nipping it in the bud before they have that big pang of worry.”

All of this hand-holding and photo-taking doesn’t detract from the overwhelming benefits of camp, the one place where kids can go offline and cell-free for weeks at a clip. Without the constant validation of texts and Facebook likes, Quinn explained, kids are better able to live in the moment, make new friends, and trust new, caring adults.

“We have teenage campers who talk to the new campers about how freeing it is not to have to check Facebook and text,” said Quinn.

And like Brian Cohen at Beam, and Deb Winsor of ConstructionKids, Quinn agrees that it’s healthy for them to experience life without these crutches.

“It’s getting more and more rare where kids have to fix their own problems and come up with new strategies for making themselves feel better and more successful,” she said.

There’s a lesson in this for parents, too. Our kids will live—thrive, in fact—for a few weeks without us. Which sounds almost as good as being able to sleep in or stay out late for a month every summer.

Originally published April 2012

3 Responses

  1. Coming Home Soon -

    I love this article and absolutely agree that sleep away camp is the best thing for kids and parents. I worked as a camp councellor when I was 20 (that Brian Cohen was the director of back in the day) and the children I came in contact with, for the most part, age, 13, were well rounded kids. I keep in contact with some of those kids now and they have grown into confident, ambitious individuals whose parents are very proud of them, confirming the decision they made to send them to camp when they were younger.

    Great read, thanks.

  2. SB -

    Is there a cheaper alternative than that? A way I can create that without dropping 5K? Times 2 kids?


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