I stood and stared at my husband. He had just suggested that my barely-turned-eight-year-old-daughter go to a sleep-away camp for a week this summer. It is a camp that our church runs and has been going strong for decades.
“The priest and his wife are going with all of their kids, Meg. As well as all her friends.”
I continued staring, with only a rare blink to break it.
“I think she is ready and would love it.”
Ready, huh? I did want any great parent coach does when she wants back up for her opinions: calls her mother.
“Oh, yes, Meg, you didn’t go to camp until you were ten or eleven. Eight is so young…” Yes, I agreed completely. My mother and I were in a fear spiral together, and I fully embraced it. My daughter was completely too young, and I immediately kyboshed the whole idea.
So, imagine my surprise when, weeks later, I stood in a circle of three or four school moms, and all of them were sending their eight-year-olds to sleep-away camp.
Hmmm. “Well,” I started justifying to myself, “all of those children aren’t first-born. They are ready because they have older siblings…”
My wheels started turning, though. Deep down, yes, I think six may be a little young for two weeks of sleep-away camp, but your average, well adjusted eight year old might be just fine. I kept wondering, though: are more and more younger kids (nine and under) going to sleep-away camp? Was my thinking wrong? Should younger children be going to sleep-away camp?
I needed proof. I needed data. I found myself on the American Camp Association (ACA) website, expecting to find that no, young children don’t attend camp. I was quite wrong.
When camp directors were asked about enrollment in Spring 2012: “Compared to last year at this time, what is your best guess at how enrollment in each of the following AGE GROUPS is progressing?” The answers were surprising! 42.5% of camp directors reported that they the “nine and under” were ahead of the prior year! Even in 2005, 58.1% camp directors were anticipating that the “nine and under” were going to stay “about the same” as the previous year. Okay, what about 2009, when so people started to panic about money and job security? Surely, people would not spend money to return their young children to camp? 39.8% of camp directors reported that, in fact, enrollment was about the same for the “nine and under” campers.
Huh, okay. So, it seems that, at least for the last seven years, a healthy group of nine and under campers have been attending (and re-attending) sleepover camps.
Yes, I also found that the recession had hurt enrollment of younger children, as well as sleep-away campers across the board, but the conclusion was clear: young children have been and are going to sleep away camps.
Not only this, but an advanced search on the ACA “Find a Camp” section yielded a significant number of camps for seven, eight, and nine-year-olds!
For a two-week, overnight camp, co-ed, and in the Northeast Region, I found:
- For five year olds, 25 camps
- For six year olds, 63 camps
- For seven year olds, 122 camps
- For eight year olds, 180 camps
- For nine year olds, 186 camps
Feeling utterly conflicted; I called the esteemed and absolutely lovely Dr. Michael Thompson. He is a super-star in my world, and wrote Raising Cain, among other amazing books that should be sitting on your bookshelf. He has helped thousands of parents, and he was kind enough to talk to me.
Dr. Thompson’s new book, Homesick and Happy, is about the beauty of sleep-away camp for children. He makes a powerful argument, through research and anecdotes, for why many kids need it more now than ever.
It starts with our own memories of being campers when we were young. Dr. Thompson says that adults report, “In their best childhood memories, only 20% had parents in them, whereas 80% had no parents; they were totally independent! It is normal and good to have children miss their parents.” He went on, “Parents talk often wanting their children to be independent, but you cannot give your child that. You have to allow them to build skills, and this is often done without the parent watching. The parent has to let go.”
The parent has to let go. Let go of the eight-year-old? Dr. Thompson said that studies show that a child’s temperament is far more predictive of how they will do at camp than their age. In fact, Dr. Thompson finds that children who happily go on overnights with friends will probably do just fine at sleep-away camp. The means that a seven-year-old could be raring to go, whereas a 11 year old may still need more time.
Yet parents are more anxious than ever to send their young children to camp, says Dr. Thompson, and this sentiment was echoed over and over by others I spoke to.
Walt Lafontaine, Director of Camp Arrowhead in Lewes DE (and where I was a camper for a number of summers and LOVED it), and would agree that there are more and more anxious parents today. Mr. Lafontaine states clearly that, “Parents are just unwilling to part with their younger children,” and that “younger children attending camps has dropped since 9/11.” Mr. Lafontaine feels that parents are “clingier than ever.”
And this is loss of experience for children, according to Carey Rivers of “Tips on Trips and Camps,” a service that helps parents match the right camp for the right child. Ms. Rivers says, “My best guess is that kids are starting camp later and going for more two week options…which is a shame as they lose the benefit of becoming part of a longer summer community at camp.”
This idea of community and belonging is crucial to the camp experience, as well as the development of the independent child, according to Dr. Thompson. When “Character development and community are the goals of camp,” rather than sports or academic skills, children will grow the resilience and maturity parents are often, and elusively, searching for.
Here is what I know to be true: My happiest summer memories are of sleep-away camp at Camp Arrowhead. Free of my parents, with friends, in nature; I was totally alive. And I did not miss my parents. Not for a minute. And it did not diminish my love for them. Not for a minute.
As Dr. Thompson and I chatted on the phone, we spoke of how not missing your parents can be a sign of a well adjusted, loved, and confident child. It is the parents who interfere with this normalcy with their anxieties, fears, guilt, and control that think, “My child must miss me for me to know I am doing a good job.”
So, my eldest is not going to camp this summer. I mustered my courage and asked her, outright, if she wanted to go; she said she wants to wait until next summer. And I will send her. Happily.