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Summer Camp – The “tradition” I never knew

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Two 15-year-old campers compete to lose their virginity first. Yeah, that REALLY makes me want to send my kids to camp.

Amigas, hermanitas…. How many of you went away to summer camp? … Anyone?

Do Latinos go to camp? When I was growing up in central California, lots of my friends went away for the summer – off to work the fields with their parents. Lots of time outside, yes, sir, but there’s a world of difference between the life of a campesino and the life of a camper.

For me, with both of my parents working, summers meant long days spent in my grandmother’s darkened living room watching her “stories” on TV, or playing in the yard with my brother, climbing the big fig tree, trying to catch the wild kittens who lived under her house, or enjoying the smell of sawdust in my grandfather’s carpentry shop out back. When we were a bit older, summers were spent lounging by the pool with my girlfriends or bicycling downtown to buy an ice cream. I spent long, unsupervised hours playing Atari, watching the classic movie of the day on the local TV station, inventing games and practicing piano or, when I was bored, reading.

No one I knew went to summer camp. And yet, it seemed that in Life as portrayed in summer movies, everyone went away to camp. There was “Meatballs,” which had my classmates reciting the bawdy jokes for months, and “Little Darlings,” which had two 15-year-old teen icons – Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal – racing to lose their virginity. (Seriously? Yep. We were still experiencing ’70s decadence before HIV changed everything in the ’80s.)

In mainstream media, the idea that “everyone” goes to summer camp is prevalent.

The New York Times has a “Room for Debate” feature up asking the question: Should Kids Go to Sleepaway Camp. The intro starts, “For those who can afford it, sleepaway camp has become an almost automatic destination for children in the summer.” Hmm. “For those who can afford it.” Just how many families can afford to spend thousands of dollars to give their children a camp experience? According to the American Camping Association, about 10 million U.S. kids go to camp each year. There are about 79 million school-age children, according to the Census. So, fewer than one in eight kids goes away to camp. One in eight. What, then, happens to the rest?

Do we lose our competitive edge, fail to make it to the right universities, or lose out on lifelong connections that will help us build careers? Maybe, actually. Maybe. But, is that OK? Probably. At least, I hope so.

My own kids – three boys – are getting an experience similar to my own. They’re spending the summer with my parents. Hanging out together, at home. Goofing off in the pool. Playing computer games. Roaming around my mom’s yard. It’s unstructured time that I hope will give them memories of their grandparents, of my hometown, of themselves as children. While I considered keeping them close to me and enrolling them in camp, I decided to send them to my parents’ homes because, one, well, my parents are getting older and who knows how long they’ll be up to having a house filled with boys and two, there’s no way I could afford camp for them. I’m a single parent, working full-time, far away from any family. Full-day camps for three boys would’ve been impossible for me to afford – and I have a decent job. Camp is expensive. Like I said, I didn’t know anyone in my little farming town who went to camp. I still don’t know anyone who sends their kids to camp. Maybe that’s because I didn’t make the “right” connections during my childhood summers.

Folks like me don’t often make it into debates like those of The New York Times. None of the five folks given space in the Times’ debate endorsed a non-camp experience. Three endorse summer camps, albeit with some suggestions, and one calls for year-round school (which I think is the most egalitarian answer). Joan Allmon of the Alliance for Childhood comes closest to suggesting children forego camp. However, she has to first open by saying it’s practically heretical to question “the great American tradition of summer camp.” Oh, yes, the great American tradition that most of us never experience.

She writes: “When I ask children what they did at summer camp, they list one activity after another. They’re great activities and good to do, but I’m waiting for a child to tell me they went to a camp where they spent much of their day playing freely with their friends, building houses and forts, and encountering as much risk as they could handle. That’s a camp I’d love to see.”

Well, what do ya know. Looks like I sent my boys to a great camp after all.

One comment on “Summer Camp – The “tradition” I never knew

  1. Your poll doesn’t allow for multiple responses….but what if you have no grandparents to take care of you and mom and dad work full time….and you live in a big city were you can’t just roam around? I think day camp was a privilege but also a practicality for my working parents…..

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