At Summer 365 we love hearing and sharing stories about people’s camp experiences. Here is an untold perspective of the magic that is camp…from a girl who never went.
By: Erica Derector
End of June arrived, and the moment came. It was time to transition from my parents’ loving arms and get on a big bus full of veteran campers and nervous rookies. Naturally, my parents were nervous about sending their little girl off to camp. Everyone tried to reassure them with encouraging words and said, “she’ll be fine.” But I wasn’t. And I never got on. My parents never forced me, and I wish they had.
Every summer it continued. My anxiety, to this day, is not indicative of the person I am. As a child, I never had a hard time developing independence. I was a self-sufficient, straight-A student who also valued the outdoors, played multiple after-school sports, and made friends extremely easily in new settings. But, I was also the competitive athlete who forfeited away-tournaments if my parents couldn’t come; the friend that stayed at birthday party sleepovers until everyone got in bed so I could call someone to come pick me up. As a teenager, I babysat my across-the-street neighbors’ 3 boys, but no matter how late the parents stayed out, I waited up to walk back home. As an adolescent, I started college at Syracuse University and soon transferred to Rutgers to be closer to my family. And I obviously couldn’t go abroad.
There have been a countless number of people in my life who tried to pretend they knew how I felt and encouraged me that I’d get through it eventually — but they most certainly did not, even if you maybe will.
For some, camp was a way for parents to get rid of their kids for the summer. Not mine. We were close. They worked hard. They cared a lot. They’d miss me more than anything. They signed me up and prepared me with everything I would and wouldn’t need: spray fans, sweatshirts, family photos, water bottles, towels, sunscreen, etc. They never gave me any reason to want, or not want to be away. There was no WiFi so I didn’t need a break from the modern child’s technology-driven world. No one forced me to clear my dinner plate every night. No one burst into my room without knocking. For me, it wasn’t about not having a curfew, or eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I had those luxuries at home. Their biggest nag was making me clean my room. But otherwise, that was it. For some reason, the weight of my loneliness settled completely the minute they left me (or I left them).
My parents just wanted me to have what they knew would be the time of my life. But no matter how independent I was or how excited I became, anxiety always struck. The thought of being gone for even a night, adjusting to the fear of the unknown, all without the luxury of heading home, whenever I felt like it, was frightening. All I wanted to do was crawl into my own bed with my shih tzu and a tub of ice cream. My heart pounded for no apparent reason other than that I needed to get home, and tremors ran down all my limbs.
Those of you lucky enough to have attended sleep away camp know that it isn’t just about the s’mores, sing-alongs, and campfires. It’s about a period of discovery and letting loose with other members of the tribe. Day Camp was fun, but while I was doing arts and crafts, the rest of my friends were learning how to make out with boys and shave their legs. But it wasn’t just the French kisses and razors either. My friends started going away anywhere from 7 to 11 years old – some didn’t stop until they were counselors in their 20s. They came home more grown up (miserably missing their friends and counting the hundreds of days left until they went back the following summer). They had built significant and incredible relationships, which most still have to this day. I wanted to play ridiculous games at night in my pajamas and stay up late in a bunk full of strangers who would no longer seem strange. I wanted to climb trees and ropes, water ski, play soccer and volleyball. I wanted to bunk with a bunch of other kids knowing some would be amazing and others quite annoying. I wanted to raid the canteen for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches late at night. I was so excited for extreme versions of “Capture the Flag” and “Color War.” I even had dreams of Visiting Day, and of chanting in a mess hall full of kids — half of who couldn’t wait to see their parents, and half who couldn’t wait for them to leave. I wanted to light a “camp candle” at my Bat Mitzvah. If FOMO existed back then, this was it.
Of course, I don’t blame my parents. They are amazing and, in reality, it hurt them more than it hurt me. But there are things, as a parent, you cannot do for your children. You cannot give them self-esteem and confidence. Those need to come from their own achievements. And you cannot give them independence. I learned that the only way children can grow is by having their parents open the door and let them walk out. That, they say, is what makes camp such a life-changing experience. At the time, I didn’t really know how strong I was. In the moment, my parents didn’t really know how strong they were. If they had just forced me on that bus… that first summer would have been rough on everyone… but I would have been OK. I would have needed no communication or contact because hearing their voices always made me more upset. There would be no guarantee for a second go, but just the extra nudge to try it once. This was sleepaway camp! The place every friend of mine went to make some of their best memories! The place I wanted to be but couldn’t get to without a push! I may have discovered my own self-reliance earlier on. Through suffering the pain of homesickness and anxiety, I may have learned the rushing exuberance of my resilience.
Today, I am a well-traveled adult. I own my own home, and run a successful business. I’ve slept in ‘bunks’ and tents all over the world. I became a varsity athlete, but never mastered my skills in archery and waterskiing. And I don’t regret transferring colleges because I met some of my best friends in both places. But I do regret not going to sleep away camp and not having my camp friends.
The summer is just beginning. You have a year to plan, save, and prepare for next summer. Make it happen for your child’s future success. Give them the gift of camp. No regrets.