Our new role as camp parents

Every summer we are excited for camp.  We can hardly wait to welcome campers and staff, new and old, to their summer home and create an experience for them that changes all of us for the better.   This year however, is different for us personally, because we finally have the opportunity to send our own child to a full season summer camp for the first time.  We say “finally” because it’s something that we have looked forward to since before our kids were even born because running a summer camp has allowed us to see first hand that camp is singularly the best place for kids to grow.

A quick disclaimer here that we acknowledge every child is different and that a full season camp program may not be for all kids and/or all families. There are so many different kinds of camps out there (just about any summer experience seems to be labeled “camp” these days), and most of them share many of the same benefits as a full season camp.  However, the longer these extraordinary experiences are had, the chances are greater for stronger connections between people and within ourselves.

Many of our friends at home and our son’s friends’ parents are shocked when they hear Paxton is going to be away at boys camp for seven weeks.  “Wow, why?”, and “I could never do that, I’d miss them too much!” are standard responses.  Yes, we will miss our son.  We will think about him every moment of every day, and have the same worries and concerns that every parent has anytime they say goodbye to their child, be it for the day at school or for the summer at camp. We want to focus more on what our son will get out of camp, and less on how our culture is moving towards one of greater dependence on parents and devices/social media.  For more on those essential topics we highly recommend delving into Jen Twenge’s research on “iGen”, which we reference later on, and Julie Lythcott-Haims’ take on raising successful kids without over-parenting.

Cameron (top), Kyle, Emily and Paxton Courtiss

Cameron (top), Kyle, Emily and Paxton Courtiss

The idea of being away from our son is heart-wrenching, so why have we been counting down with such eagerness?  In short, because no matter how much we want to, we alone as his parents can’t teach him everything he needs to know to truly thrive.

First and foremost, camp is all about fun and friends.  When we ask Paxton what he’s most excited for, those always top the list – he’s excited to make new friends and have fun. It’s so simple, and this is what we are most excited for too!  We know that Paxton’s days will be filled with playing with kids and doing things he loves, as well as being introduced to new people and new things, some of which he’ll love and some of which he won’t.

And there will be no screens.  This is a big one for us because Paxton loves video games and it takes all our disciplinary prowess to limit his screen time. And what better limitation than removing it all together and replacing it with a plethora of athletic, artistic, nature-based and social activities!!  We feel strongly about this as parents and camp directors because the evidence against screen time is startling, especially as kids turn into teens. Recent national studies yield clear results: “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”  Overnight camp is the ultimate nonscreen activity and the kids who are lucky enough to spend seven weeks with no screens and no social media are happier for it!

All of that time playing in a supportive and safe camp environment teaches Paxton some really important things – exposure to new experiences, challenging himself and stepping outside his comfort zone, cooperating with others, being a positive part of a team, practicing good sportsmanship, learning that failing/losing is not the end but part of the process, spirit, tradition, believing in himself, grit, perseverance…the list goes on.

He will also will be living as a member of a close-knit community and cabin.  Our son will be expected to care for his belongings, help clean up his cabin, make his bed, put his dirty clothes in the laundry (gasp!) – in sum, take care of himself.  Of course there will be counselors and other adults to guide, remind and help him, but at the end of the day, the expectation is independence, cooperation and working toward a common goal.  And when he misses us, which he will, and which is also totally normal, his counselors and others will be there for him and he will gain even more confidence knowing that he can enjoy this experience away from us.

And the making friends part?  Incredible. The relationships we see kids make at Vega, and we hope our son finds at camp, are special. Camp friendships are strong in part because of how much fun kids have together and the special memories that bond them together. But do kids always get along and make the right choices? Of course not, they’re kids!  We know that Paxton’s counselors and the other adults at his camp will do their best to turn the challenges of maintaining relationships and living with each other into lessons of how to be good friends and good people.  At camp our son will learn as much, if not more about empathy, respect, accountability, honesty, inclusion and acceptance, than we as his parents could ever hope to impart in seven weeks (if not a lifetime!).

And that’s why we’re sending our child away to camp: we know that he can learn more about himself, more about being happy, and more about how to be a better person, than he can with us. And it’s not from a lack of wanting or trying!  It’s that within the comfort of home and the familiarity of family, he can never challenge himself and learn to believe in himself in the same ways as when he’s away from us.  There’s a saying that kids save the worst for their parents.  Perhaps that’s true, and it’s because we’ve always been there for them and they know they can always turn for us to help.  And in a time when kids and young adults are more dependent and less happy, we are proud to give our child the opportunity to be a stronger and happier kid, and ultimately a happier and thus more successful adult because of his camp experiences.

As first time parents, it’s a lofty expectation, but as experienced camp directors we know it’s most certainly attainable.

With love,
Kyle and Emily