October 4, 2021

What I learned about kids at camp this past summer


It never pays off to under estimate a child. That was my first… and second… and third lesson about kids this past summer. They taught me that they’re more flexible, open to change and resourceful than we ever knew.

My first tutorial on that subject was Day One of camp.

I spent about a week of 14 hour days hunched over my keyboard writing the Camp Arowhon camper arrival protocol called Kiss and Go – because for the first time ever, all our campers were arriving not on buses but by car. Every little move was planned. Including the diversion of cars to up the hill behind the dining hall for any child who couldn’t bring themselves to get out of the car within five minutes of arrival. I figured kids were so used to being with their parents 24/7 that many of them would have a rough time separating.

I could not have been more wrong.

I stationed my daughter Mara and another experienced senior person up the hill to receive those cars, and work their magic helping those legions of anxious children work their way out of the car. An hour and a half into Kiss and Go, Mara radios me: “This is a waste of time. I’ve had one kid and he hopped out of the car in less than five minutes.”

Funny, huh?

And that trend persisted. We had shockingly less homesickness than normal. Your kids taught me that given the opportunity to be with their peers and play outside, they found great joy. Nothing else mattered much. All spring, when I was very busy losing sleep about the million challenges associated with running camp in the time of COVID, my friend Sol Birenbaum who runs Camp Walden kept saying to me: “We’ll give kids grilled cheese and a lake and that will be enough.”

Sol was right.

It was more than enough.

Your kids taught me that there is no barrier too high for them to jump over, when on the other side is the chance  for them to be together and play outside. They taught me that they can and will jump the hurdles and keep running. Half the camp has to eat outside in tents? So what. Cabin groups are forced to cohort and stay distant from other cabin groups? No sweat. Everybody has to mask indoors. Who cares?

The children sure didn’t. Adults say this is all too inconvenient and hard. The campers said “whatever” and had barrels of fun.

I also learned that parents and kids really needed a break from each other. As a mom, I’ve always believed that our role in kids’ lives is huge and crucial. Family dinner, family vacations,.. family time. The Jesuits say: “Give me a child till he is six years old and he is mine forever.” They mean that they set values and ways of living.

But after children are six, they soon start to look to their peers for confirmation of the two things that matter most to them: Who they are, and that they are likeable and valuable. As parents, we hate that because it reduces our influence. This reality is hard for us to acknowledge.

Camp ’21 showed us the truth of it. Kids were horribly starved for time with their peers, both for fun and as the mirror to confirm who they are. They didn’t need us to entertain them as much as we used to think they did. All our worries about how to run great camp programmes in the time of COVID  were silly. We learned how profoundly hanging out together and playing outside matters to them. And how happy they can be with just that. Kids needed their camp family. They needed loving attention from their counsellors. Everything else was gravy. And we know most kids couldn’t give a darn about gravy.

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