Carry on camping, just not with me

Kayaking, bonfires, sleeping under the stars – do summer camps make for a character-defining moment in a child's life? I'm no expert but I have a hunch they do. Resilience seems to be the theme, which can only be a good thing, but as a mother I can tell you I'm feeling a tiny bit fragile

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  1. “I’m about to thrust my child into a four-week-long situation that I know, from experience, to be a total misery … Here is the truth: I hated camp. I hated camp so much, and resent the fact that I hated it, that I’ve come to develop a grand, if wobbly, theory about it. The world divides into those people who despised camp and those people who loved it.”

… Pamela Paul’s words are my reality. I am reading her New York Times piece in the dark, propped up in bed, desperately trawling for some kind of sparkly illumination on the subject. My 10-year-old son shuffled into his cabin a day earlier, he looked glum. We had sent him off to camp with an overstuffed bag, his trail bike and an essential oil spray for flagging spirits, yet the silence was excrutiating.

When we said goodbye, I saw my face in his. I never liked camp and couldn’t wait to get home. Of course, I didn’t tell him that; I was stoic and over-smiling though I wanted to scoop him up. Camp, for me, was harrowing: I remember spilling out of a canoe dressed in corduroy. I can picture the girls who smoked before dinner, and kicked our tent pegs out after midnight. The flying fox, climbing ropes, the meat loaf. Perhaps it all made me stronger, I'm not sure. I know I was a lot more independant than my son at his age – I read Jackie Collins for one thing, there was much less bubble wrap. A friend recently said to me, 'you cannot teach a child resilience, they have to learn it', and I understand her point, but how to know when the time is right to let go? 

 

Brother Nature: above, at Camp Henry summer camp, New York, photographed by Rae Russell in 1948 / Getty Images. Below, scenes from Moonrise Kingdom, the 2012 coming-of-age film directed by Wes Anderson, set on the fictitious island of New Penzance.

 

“Children at camp often grow in ways that surprise themselves," explains Dr. Michael Thompson, an expert when it comes to loosening ties. In his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, he writes: "In an age when it’s the rare child who walks to school on his own, the thought of sending your little ones off to sleep-away camp can be overwhelming — for you and for them. But a parent’s first instinct, to shelter their offspring above all else, actually deprives children of the major developmental milestones that occur through letting them go, and watching them come back transformed. When children go to camp — for a week, a month, or the whole summer — they can experience some of the greatest maturation of their lives, and return more independent, strong, and healthy."

 

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Into The Wild: from top, the 1963 film adaptation of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies portrays a group of  schoolboy savages; a library camp-out photographed by Tim Walker; and Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, (1986),  featuring four friends who set off on a life-changing adventure.

Inner strength and confidence is the exquisite goal in all of this but I am struggling to forget that scene from Lord Of The Flies. I need a beacon, a more lyrical ode to summer camp such as this nostalgic piece by Dominique Browning, which totally buoys the spirits. The writer’s romantic memories, bound by her crystal-clear recollection of valuable lessons learned, are everything:

“We would hike a long trail at dusk to a clearing in the woods, where logs piled in tepees were already burning hot, sparks shooting up into the canopy of trees. We sat on the soft, piney ground in circles. The counselors played guitars, and we sang our hearts out.” Yes! Yes!

And I love Browning's point on kindness, too: “Those red blazers, our Sunday formal attire, had one purpose. They were meant to be decorated with badges — badges for achievement in swimming, diving, tennis, you name it. There was something called character-building, and we were awarded pins for kindnesses done, moments of leadership. I still do not believe that being competitive is a bad thing — and why exactly are we raising children to think they are always winners? — because I learned to celebrate other people’s wins, too. And I learned that while a race is great fun, it isn’t everything." I am pinning my hopes on this kind of camaraderie and friendship.

Flash forward to homecoming and my son is exhausted, sunburnt and happy. His torso is wiry, his knees are filthy but his eyes are sparkling beneath his cap. I want to squeeze him again but we are both being cool in front of the campers. Then as we load up the car, he is suddenly hugging me tight: "I came fourth in kayaking," he says, and his face is beaming. "It was so hard Mum, six kilometres, we were paddling against the wind. We just had to keep pushing and pushing and pushing." And right then, I get it.