The Sleep Away Camp Dilemma

Spending the summer at camp helps kids build independence and self-esteem, but what’s in it for parents who aren’t sure about letting go?

Photo credit: Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

I come from a mixed marriage of sorts. My husband, Michael, and I come from middle-class, suburban Jewish homes. We both attended the University of Pennsylvania, and we both went on to receive graduate degrees. But there is a simple yet significant difference between us: My husband was a sleep away camper and I was not.

Michael is a product of seven summers at an eight-week sleep away camp for boys in Northern Wisconsin, where he says his happiest memories of childhood and adolescence were made. I, on the other hand, was raised in the Bethesda area and never attended sleep away camp. My sisters and I spent our summers in Ocean City, Md., riding the waves and the roller coasters at the boardwalk.

It was always Michael’s desire that our three daughters (Alexa, Claire and Jillian, ages 11, 9 and 6) would go to summer sleep away camp as early as age 9, but his campaign began before Alexa was even born. I agreed to seriously consider the possibility when our girls were “of age.” And so, the summer Alexa turned 8, Michael said the fateful words: “Do you want me to look into some sleep away camps for her for next summer, or do you want to?”

I felt nauseated at the thought of Alexa going away for eight weeks and I was angry at Michael for forcing the issue. “She’s too young,” I told him.

Michael loves our girls, but his sleep away camp conviction trumps his desire to spend summers with our daughters. He is not alone. Thousands of families in the Bethesda area send their sons and daughters to sleep away camp for the summer.

I began researching camps for Alexa and was met with a variety of reactions from friends and family. My mother wondered why I would bother when she and my father had a summer home for us to enjoy at the beach. My grandmother reminded me, “No one in our family ever went away from home during the summer!”

I worried that we would be sending Alexa away for all the wrong reasons. After all, summers were short enough—why not treasure our time together as a family? And why did Alexa need to go away and learn to be independent when she was only 9? And I had heard from friends that sleep away camp is not for every child.

“You are giving Alexa the greatest and most selfless gift you can give by sending her to camp!” my friend Jolie Brown of Bethesda said to me. Jolie attended nine summers of girls’ camp in Pennsylvania and planned to send her then 8-year-old daughter, Jordana, to her alma mater that summer.

Still, I wondered if there might be a compromise to almost an entire summer without Alexa.

A friend introduced me to Lisa Sherman Fayne of Potomac, assistant director of camper development for three camps in Greeley, Pa., including Timber Tops, an all-girls camp that offers two three-and-a-half-week terms each summer, so children can attend one or both sessions. Fayne came to my home to talk to Michael, Alexa and me about the camp. Camp Timber Tops was more rustic, with rockier paths, more trees and somewhat less luxurious bunks and facilities than other camps we looked at.

While Fayne acknowledges that sleep away camp is “a gift and a privilege” (the price can reach $1,000-plus a week for some camps), she views it as an exceptional opportunity for kids to grow independently and form family-type connections. “It’s not just to go for a week and learn how to play basketball.…The kids create relationships that are lifelong … You can meet up with a camp friend 20 years later and still have an incredible bond,” she says.

Ultimately, I turned to my gut. My happiest childhood recollections were days spent biking and hanging out outdoors with friends without the constant, looming presence of adults. Camp offered Alexa some of this freedom. Besides, Alexa wanted to go to camp. Many of her friends were heading to various camps that summer and she wanted to try one as well.

“I’ll have six weeks of summer with you and Daddy and my sisters,” she told me. “It will be fun to have a few weeks of camp, too.” So Michael and I agreed that Alexa would attend Camp Timber Tops.

In the weeks leading up to Alexa’s departure, I got her packed and ready. The camp sent a list of the necessities, which included everything from toiletries, bug sprays, suntan lotions, sleeping bags and small portable chairs to cot-sized sheets, blankets, flashlights and small battery- operated fans. We also bought oh-so-adorable camp stationery, address books, journals and, of course, stamps. The camp also sent a mail-order catalogue so we could conveniently purchase the right size duffle bags (giant) and the required red-and-white Camp Timber Top T-shirts and sweatshirts (four).

I had finally packed Alexa’s giant blue duffle with her carefully labeled clothing. I checked the list three times until I was satisfied she had sufficient underwear and shampoo. The baggage company picked up her duffle and delivered it to Camp Timber Tops a week before her arrival. That’s when the anxiety hit. In a few days, she was really going away for almost four weeks—without me. I knew in my heart that she would be fine: She was as independent as they come. But she was still my baby.

The night before Alexa left, I had her sleep with Michael and me “for the fun of it.” The three of us watched a movie that night. Alexa and Michael dozed off, but I stayed awake for a while smelling her hair and reviewing the list of camp supplies in my head.

A charter bus picked up the local kids at Walt Whitman High School. There were crying kids, nervous parents, barking dogs and camp counselors trying their best to get the kids loaded and moving.

As the large camp bus pulled away, I could barely see Alexa’s small brown head. Michael and I waved wildly with the mass of parents and grandparents.

Alexa was not allowed to call home from camp. The counselor said the rule was in place because the sound of a parent’s voice might make a child more homesick. More likely, her voice would make me miss her more, I thought. But, I did receive a cheerful call from her counselor on the first night telling me that Alexa was happy, settled and doing well. “She has already made a friend in her bunk, Bunk Oak,” she told me. “You can look online for pictures as we post them daily.”

Each day I logged onto the camp Web site looking for pictures of my daughter. Claire and Jillian and I searched through hundreds of girls and screamed out with joy when we found Alexa’s smiling face in a crowd, or a photo of her by the tennis courts or the lake, her arms interlocked with those of other girls.

The days went by fairly fast, but at night, when I put the girls to bed, I walked by Alexa’s empty bed and missed her. My nest felt prematurely empty. One week after Alexa was gone, we received a letter:

Dear Mom, Dad, Jillian, and Claire,
I love CTT!!!!!! Today I played tennis, did gymnastics and had lake time! Tonight is junior lip synch! I hope we win! Alyssa is my new best friend! Claire, you would love it here! Bye!
Love, Alexa

The day she returned from camp, the girl who got out of the car was tanner and a little taller than the one we put on a bus almost four weeks earlier. We grabbed each other and embraced and then headed into the house. Within a few hours, everything was back to normal again.

When we had the time to talk, Alexa Told me about camp. She loved the games, the evening activities, the counselors and her new friends, she said. But, mostly, she talked about the feeling of doing things on her own. “I had my own jobs in the bunk,” she told me. “I had my own schedule.” She had responsibility and freedom. She was thrilled to have time to safely explore the boundaries of a world outside of ours.

The next summer, Alexa went back to Camp Timber Tops and stayed for a second session. Alexa’s younger sister, Claire, has just turned 9, and we have signed her up for Camp Timber Tops for three-and a-half weeks this summer. My guess is that it won’t be any easier for me the second time around.

Heidi Hookman Brodsky is a Bethesda writer.

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