My 14-year-old went to camp for the first time last winter. After years of trying to convince her of how much she would enjoy sleep-away camp, my homebody finally agreed to attend a two-night winter snow camp at Word Of Life Institute in up-state New York. Word of Life knows how to engage teens like nowhere else I’ve ever witnessed. With simple, yet exceptionally entertaining activities, and relevant and dynamic speakers and rallies, two nights goes by in a flash.
After snow camp, we were able to convince her she would be fine at a six-night summer camp, and sent her to Word Of Life’s Island Camp. Again, WOL hit the nail on the head with their activity schedule, and the almost magical way they have of connecting with kids and facilitating life change.
And last weekend, we arrived home from this year’s snow camp experience, where consensus says, it was better than last year.
As a parent of a reluctant camper, I think the first two camp experiences were harder on me than they were for my kid. They take their phones away, people. When I laid down my head to sleep at night, I could not help but wonder if she was awake, homesick, sad… if she had forgotten something important, or lost something important… if she had made friends, or if she just really, really wanted to be home. Snow camp, being only two nights wasn’t so bad, although I spent the weekend thinking about her constantly. But a whole week was another story. I felt sick with worry the whole time she was gone.
This time around, however, was different. This past weekend, the feelings of worry had vanished! I knew she was fine, and more importantly, I knew she would survive, even if everything wasn’t perfectly fine, which led me to realize there are lots of reasons kids should go to camp (and not all of them have to do with kids at all).
Practically speaking, camp teaches kids basic life skills like how to pack. In our busy world, this is an essential skill. Learning how to part with loved items and leave some things at home, and how to critically think about what is and isn’t a necessary item is beneficial as well. This weekend was the first time I haven’t helped my daughter pack, and she didn’t forget anything! It was a proud moment for mama.
Kids are also peer-pressured into staying tidy and organized, and it allows them to see that what mom is always nagging them for at home, is necessary in real life. Choose a camp that has bunk checks daily to be sure everything is clean and tidy. It will develop the skill of staying orderly very quickly, and even if it doesn’t continue when they get home, they’ve been exposed, and see that in the real world, keeping your space tidy isn’t so hard, and shows respect to those around them.
It develops social skills, like interacting with new people, being comfortable in large groups, and engaging in personal conversations and experiences with fairly new friends. And what I love is that they have to disconnect, and actually build face-to-face relationships. No texts, no Facebook or Instagram, and no constant photo-snapping. Instead, they are really living, the way we did when we were kids. Outside all day in the sunshine (or in a rainshower!), with freedom to run! They will discover who they are, and do it alongside other kids who are experiencing the same challenges they are of being away from home, parents and friends. They will probably get sunburnt, and maybe swim in a lake for the first time. They’ll climb a rock wall, or maybe even a mountain. They’ll ride a horse and shoot a bow. They’ll sing and laugh and Just. Be. Kids. For a week or two, they’ll experience the beauty of the smell of dew-covered grass in the morning, learn to love the sounds of canoe paddles smacking the water or waves lapping the underside of a dock. They’ll grow attached to the smell of the smoke from a bonfire in their hair and clothes. They’ll watch the sun settle in for the night as it drops behind a field of willow trees. They’ll breathe deeply and lose all that breath playing capture the flag. They will probably have too much fun to feel homesick. They’ll probably be so exhausted when their heads hit the pillow they won’t have time to think of home before their heavy eyes close for the night in a peaceful sleep, even in the upper bunk of a hot sticky cabin.
Do you know how I know this? Because I’ve been there, and you probably have too! And still, I dream of spending summer at camp, enjoying all of the things that make it the best part of being a kid. Now that I’m a parent, I think there are a whole new set of reasons to drop off the kiddos for a few weeks. They are a bit more self-involved, but I’ve come to believe they are just as important.
Your kids are definitely learning who they are as individuals when they are at camp – that means, who they are without you! That’s a big deal! But the flip side of this phenomenon is that you can remember who you are without them! Do you even remember? Sometimes I forget, and that’s not a bad thing. Our kids are huge priorities, and they rightly define our lives for a season. But one day, they will (please Lord) move out and start their own lives, and I desperately want to know who I am before that happens. When we’ve got these precious weeks here and there to ourselves, we have the chance to explore who we are becoming, and unearth who we once were. What a gift we can give ourselves!
With this comes a test-run for the future… learning to let go. Learning to walk away and see how they fair in the world on their own, without our guidance. And if this terrifies you, you are not alone. But, I bet you’ll develop an entirely new found confidence in your kids. I guarantee you are going to see something new in them you didn’t know was there, or will gain a confidence in an ability you didn’t think they had! Maybe they’ll lose a shirt or a shoe, but they’ll impress you with how they made new friends, took care of (most of) their things, & managed their spending money. You’ll see your kids in a new light, I promise, and you’ll be able to relax a little when you questions their abilities in the future.
And, if you are like me, it’ll give you the opportunity to power down your helicopter. See, I’m a bit of a helicopter parent. You know, those who hover a bit to close to their children all the time? Those who are involved in everything, always trying to manage and adjust and change things? I can be that way, and the first step in healing is being aware, so I’m on my way! But when my daughter is at camp, and I’ve got no means of communicating with her, I have no choice but to let it be… which gives me the chance to hover around other things… like my husband!
Maybe for you, it’s your other children who get some extra attention, or maybe someone else in your life who needs a bit of TLC. But since I’m a one-child-woman, all that spare time and focus gets poured out onto my hubby, and it becomes a sacred bonding time for us. We’ve spent the weekend staying close by when we drop our daughter off at snow camp, and it’s become a yearly tradition we call the State-of-the-Marriage Weekend. We get a hotel for a few nights. We eat at great restaurants and plan fun things to do together. We spend some time setting goals for ourselves, each other, and our family. If just for this time together, we would always make room in our budget for camp!
And perhaps my absolute favorite part of camp is when it ends. When we get to see her little face emerging from a sea of happy, sweaty, sleepy campers, and feel her arms wrap around our necks. She tells us she missed us. She missed us! And we really missed her, too. Our kids, especially our teens, can be tough, right? They can just wear us down, but I know I can do the same to my daughter at times. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it is definitely true in our house. Being apart from one another makes us realize the things we love the most about each other. She sits in the backseat for a few hours on the ride home and her excited voice tells us story after story about the adventures she had, and I’m never so happy to hear her endless 14 year old chatter.
Camp is a huge win for your family, and you don’t have to choose the fanciest or most expensive camp, either. Just a place with trees and some water, where your kids will have a chance to break free from their everyday lives. What I wouldn’t give to be 14, heading out on a summer camp adventure of my own. I believe it’s one of the last remaining ways we can give our kids the gift of experiencing ‘the good old days’ that we grew up in… with safety and freedom, creating memories that will last a lifetime.