We drive along a winding road, finally approaching scenes that feel familiar. Until now, we have seen them only on colorful brochures and website pages.
We pull to a stop. College-age counselors surround our car, cheering and welcoming us to Kanakuk, a Christian summer camp in Branson, Missouri.
As our first-born triplet sons get out of the car, my confidence in our decision to send them to this serene, woodsy environment for the next month plummets. Fear and doubt consume me.
Why had I ever thought it was a good idea to send our boys to a sleepaway camp hundreds of miles from home? My parents never sent me away to camp. I am dreading the thought of missing precious summer moments with them, and going to bed each night without full assurance that they are safe and happy.
What if they don’t like camp? What if they struggle to make friends? What if they get sick or can’t stand the food? Why didn’t I listen when my children said they didn’t want to go away to camp? What if we made a big mistake?
I watch our 13-year-old boys walk nervously toward the camp tram that will whisk them away to their respective cabins. What seemed like a perfectly logical idea — to separate our sons in different cabins to strengthen their individuality — now seems nothing short of unloving. All I want is to take them back to the familiar comfort of the room they share at home.
The only way I can move beyond my fear and discomfort is to focus on the reasons we are here: My husband and I want to raise children of strong faith and character, and we want them to master life skills they will need for adulthood. Summer camp offers reinforcement for these essentials in a safe, supervised environment allowing opportunities for self-discovery and personal growth.
We want our children to have time away from the pressure and distractions of technology and the fast-paced, competitive world they inhabit. Living in rustic cabins in a wooded setting gives them a needed break from worry and stress about grades, performance, achievement, social media and materialism. We want our children to have downtime in nature — and space to jump, run and play outdoors freely without parents monitoring and managing their every move.
We want them to learn how to build relationships with other human beings — in person. Most sleep-away camps prohibit or limit the use of computers, video games, televisions and other digital devices. Campers can’t hide behind their devices, which forces them to communicate face-to-face with peers and adults, make new friends and learn important socialization skills. If we want our kids to feel comfortable interacting with others in the real world, then we need to start setting them up for success.
We want our children to experience safe environments in which they can move through discomfort and overcome obstacles they would never be faced with at home. Camp provides children with adventures and situations that build their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. We know this builds grit, determination, and resilience — positive and necessary traits that will prepare them to be confident adults.
We also want them to have fun. Camps offer many new activities like wakeboarding, sailing, caving, horseback riding or simply enjoying doing nothing.
As we say our goodbyes, I put a brave smile on my face that does not match the pit in my stomach. Tears spring to my eyes as my husband and I drive away. I knew the next four weeks will be a stretch for all of us.
Back at home, we log on to the camp website nightly, hoping to catch a glimpse of our kids enjoying their time away. In the photo galleries, we see pictures of our boys together and apart, smiling with strangers and hanging out with their counselors. As I see how happy and healthy they appear, I begin to relax and relish having more time alone with my husband.
Handwritten letters begin arriving in our mailbox. The experiences our sons relate affirm the reasons we sent them to camp: They are making friends with people from all over the country. They are trying new feats and accomplishing new tasks. They are learning to wakeboard, sail and play new sports. They miss filtered bottled water and the comforts of home. They even say they miss us. They never mention missing their technology.
Sending children to sleepaway camp each summer is a sacrifice. It’s never easy to pay the tuition, pack up the trunks or have our kids away for such a long time. But it is a sacrifice I’m willing to make. This summer, as we drop off our children for the fifth year and drive away, the tears may still come. But they will be tears of gratitude, not fear. I know our decision to send our kids to sleepaway camp was one of the best and bravest decisions we ever made.
- 2020 Sleepaway Camps Directory
- Why should kids have all the fun? Try a family sleepaway camp
- 77 years of summer camp at Friendly Pines in Prescott
- Arizona Diamondbacks’ Luis Gonzalez reflects on the benefits of summer camp
Reinforcement from former campers
The American Camp Association recently conducted a national study of young adults who attended overnight camp as kids. These young people, ages 18 to 25, listed the many ways camp experiences broadened their perspectives and helped them in school and early careers:
- Camp enhanced a spirit of independence by giving them the freedom to explore new activities, make new friends and learn by doing.
- Camp encouraged effort and perseverance. Former campers said camp helped them become self-reliant and confident.
- Camp taught them to live in the moment. Former campers confirmed that time at camp was spontaneous, unrehearsed and relaxed. They didn’t dwell on the past or worry about the future.
- Camp created a community that celebrates diversity — a chance to meet new people and learn to appreciate, respect and value everyone’s uniqueness.
- Camp built collaboration skills. Former campers said they learned to work together and conduct important or even difficult conversations. Former campers attest to the importance of these relationship skills in their success in higher education, the workplace and life.
How to handle pushback
Don’t let your child’s fear of the unknown keep you from sending him or her to sleepaway summer camp.
Get clear on the end goal for your child. It’s not your job to make your children happy at all times.
Don’t be afraid to nudge children into uncomfortable experiences you know will benefit them in the long run.
Remember: Children aren’t capable of understanding the benefits of sleepaway summer camp until they’ve experienced it. Then, beware: They may beg you to sign them up year after year.