Choosing the Right Summer Camp

Our older two kids were at a church camp last week.  They have never been to this particular one before but since it’s the one for our denomination (Presbyterians), we hoped they would like it.  They both went to a non-denominational, for profit one further away with some friends (also from our congregation) for the two previous years, as well as a Lutheran one before that and Jane had attended a Methodist years ago.

I say all that to demonstrate that we have had a perhaps higher-than-average exposure to a variety of church camps.  The Methodist and for profit ones were very large, the Lutheran one fairly small, and this new one extremely small.  All were in remote wooded areas with cabins.  All were a week long.  All involved some outdoor activities, worship, Bible study, and more.

Our friend that invited us to the for profit camp loves it.  She adores it.  She says it is perfect for her kids and they do indeed love it.  We were not all that comfortable with it the first year but the kids had a good time so we sent them back a second year.  They still liked it that year too but our unease had increased.  When Jane attended a Presbyterian youth conference the following week and said she liked it better than the other camp (which I will now call ‘Camp A’), we decided to make a change.

This year, we sent them to a nearby Presbyterian camp (which I will now call ‘Camp B’).  The friend whose kids go to Camp A said that she had gone to Camp B growing up and felt that Camp A was right for her kids.  To some extent, our differences can be explained simply by personality and preference.  The smaller ones are more to our liking because we like smaller, more intimate settings – that’s why we deliberately chose a small congregation to join.  We don’t like a lot of pomp and circumstance.  We don’t care for big production.

Camp A has counselors lining the road as you drive up, yelling and cheering.  As you get out of the car, you are approached by a counselor with a microphone who asks your camper’s name and then announces it to the camp over a loud speaker.  The kids are bustled into brightly colored two-story cabins with huge animal heads over the doors and a fire pole and slide from the second floor to the first.  There’s a huge flashy water park style area with a big slide, falling water, jungle gym.  The closing ceremony has the camp director bounding up on stage with a microphone and a lot of hype and energy.  It is intoxicating.

That’s for the younger kids.  The older camp appears more subdued.  But we weren’t allowed to accompany Jane to her cabin.  And when she was twelve, her counselor decided that even though her swimsuit was a modest one-piece fitting the guidelines, Jane was simply too well-endowed to be allowed to swim without a shirt on over it.  I’ll be honest – this angered me.  Young girls have such tremendous body image issues and an early-developing girl is particularly self-conscious.  This encounter scarred her.  I had to listen to her tell me for months after how much she hated her breasts.  She’s beautiful but was already learning to hate herself and this camp played a role in that. It smacked of the attitude: Cover up the girls rather than teach the boys.

That was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for us.  At least, for me.  But we’ve spent a lot of time analyzing our feelings and trying to sort out the rational from the irrational, to make the right decision.  After all, they could attend Camp A with friends.  Camp B, they’d arrive with just each other.

Camp A is expensive.  Through a couple of funding mechanisms, it ends up not being personally that expensive for people from our church, but someone is still paying a lot of money for it.  It’s also a lot farther away: 4 hours one way vs. less than 2 for Camp B.  That means sixteen hours total on the road vs. seven.  They also have theme nights every night, which means you have to acquire special outfits for them to change into in addition to their regular day clothes.  And there’s a snack bar that they can visit every day: more money.  And junk.

Camp B costs considerably less.  It’s closer.  There are not any special wardrobe requirements.  And the snack bar is only open on Saturday when you arrive to pick them up.  In fact, you are specifically told not to send snacks as they are not allowed to have food in the cabins and to not send money as there is no place to spend it.  I see this as fewer distractions and fewer unhealthy behaviors.

These are practical concerns, though, not spiritual or programming.  Surely we’d be willing to spend the extra money and extra time on the road if our children were getting more out of the experience?  Within reason, yes.  So how was this new, very small camp?

They loved it.  I could tell before I even had a chance to talk to Jane that something magical had happened for her.  They both got into the car after the closing worship gushing about how great the camp was.  How it was the best they had ever been to.  How they both want to become interns and then counselors.  They definitely want to come back and how much better it was than Camp A.

Now, I’m not a fool.  They just got done with Camp B – of course it beats the pants off anything they did a year ago.  It’s still fresh on their minds.  They reported loving Camp A too.  Still, I listened carefully to what they said and discovered some insight, I think, into why our family and our friend’s family respond so differently to the notions of the two camps.

Our friend told us that her daughter loves Camp A because “there’s something going on 24/7.  They are always going!  That’s what my kids love!  They are busy kids – they want to be active!”

Our kids are busy too – during the school year.  In fact, I’d say that both families are likely guilty of over-scheduling.  But my kids preferred the slower paced camp.  They liked “Vespers”, where you lay out under the stars and relax, maybe go through some guided meditation, maybe just commune quietly with God.

When the Camp Director at Camp B addressed the parents, he said, “Your kids are the same kids you dropped off here.  We didn’t turn them into Jesus Kids.  They are the same.  Hopefully, we planted a seed that will grow into something in years to come, but we didn’t completely change them in one week.”

And therein lies the difference.  I think Camp A believes that they can make a radical shift in a child’s life on the spot.  They misinterpret (or maybe just misrepresent) the mountain-top high the kids all leave with as something that lasts forever, instead of something that wears off after a few days.  I’m not saying Camp A doesn’t plant a seed too – it does.  I just appreciate the more modest perspective of Camp B.

I also think it’s a mistake to program every minute of a child’s time.  I was watching a video recently where the person was imparting a lot of information.  He was rattling it off quickly and I wanted to consider something he said and process it but I couldn’t or I’d be missing the next point.  It went too fast.  I couldn’t absorb it.  It was enjoyable but not much stuck.  So beyond entertainment, what was the point?

I think that Camp B (and the conference Jane went to) recognizes that kids need downtime to think.  To pray.  To get to know each other. To relax.  To shut off.  To just be.  The fundamental difference between the two camps’ approaches, I think, is a matter of trust.

Camp B trusts the kids to arrive at the right answers if they are given space to get there themselves (with some guidance, of course).  They trust the kids to be responsible if left to choose their own activities.  They. Trust. The. Kids.

Camp A needs to drive the message home.  It needs to tell the kids what to believe, what is right, what is wrong.  It needs to keep them busy so they can’t get into any trouble.

I freely admit that I could be wrong.  After all, my pondering has been about why I think Camp B is better than Camp A, so of course my conclusions are going to trend toward flattering portrayals of Camp B and non-flattering of Camp A.  And my values are going to seem more important, more significant, more weighty than someone else’s, making a camp that more closely matches my values seem more important, more significant, more weighty than one that doesn’t.  I get that.

One final perspective came out of our Dave Ramsey course, specifically the lesson on marketing.  It’s ironic that I’m getting this perspective from there since Dave Ramsey is also highly marketed with a lot of hype.  Then again, he doesn’t fault the marketers for their efforts, he just wants you to be aware of what they are doing and why.

Camp A is marketing itself to me.  All that hype and flash is about selling itself.  To make it seem special and unique and bigger than life so that I will bring my kids back.  Because, let’s face it, if the kids don’t come, the camp doesn’t pay the bills and doesn’t make a profit for the owners.  And if that happens too many years in a row, they have to shut the doors.

But isn’t that true for Camp B, you ask?  Kinda sorta.  But being part of a denomination and supported by some churches means that is has some funding sources to draw on.  And since it isn’t drumming up all that hype, its expenses are much less.  Marketing is expensive.

To me, it’s like going to Disney World vs. a family get-together.  Yeah, Disney World is a big deal and exciting and fun… but family is family.  And family doesn’t have to keep me busy.  I can just enjoy their company.

And that’s what my kids did last week.  With just under 50 kids in the whole camp – all age ranges – they knew everybody.  Everybody.  By name.  And loved them all.  And enjoyed their company.  And that’s worth more than a water park and a high ropes course any day of the week.

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5 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Summer Camp

  1. Reading this reminded me of the family vacation we took to Florida when I was a teenager, and how, even then, I never could trust any institution that was determined to force a person to enjoy themselves at all costs, practically scolding anyone who didn’t buy into the game. I hated pep rallies at school for the same reason.

    I’m the oldest of 4, so, at 16, I was continuously trying to not ruin the fun for my younger siblings while we did the Disney stuff but I really, really, REALLY hated it. Why? One word: Hoopla.

    I absolutely detested the shrieking insistence of “Exciting! Thrilling! Isn’t this the most Magical and Fantastic place on Earth?” of the entire park. Every attraction, every ride, ever lemonade barker, every sign in the place absolutely INSISTED that this was THE place to have the time of your life. I was so turned off that I was quiet, bordering on sullen, the entire time. I vowed I would NEVER go to Disney World again.

    Now, my youngest brother was 9 and he and I have always been close. He was itching to do something that the rest of the group kept putting off in deference to my tiny little sister who, just shy of 8 years old, was too small to go on most of the rides. Finally, he asked me if I would take him through the haunted (mountain? House? I can’t recall). It sounded like maybe it wouldn’t be too horrible, and certainly better than another round of teacups, so I looked at my parents, expecting the answer to be “no, we have to stay together as a group so no one gets lost.” To my pleasant surprise, my Dad said sure, just meet us at such and such a place at such and such a time, and we will all eat dinner then. He was probably thinking I’d be happier and less complain-y if I had something specific to do, and the other two kids really didn’t want to go (baby sister screamed when she found out what it was, insisting that she would NOT go in, and she was far too young to go anywhere by herself).

    My Mom, probably weary of all the long lines and noise, agreed I should take my Bruvver and sent us off. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to behave like an adult, allowed the responsibility of keeping my brother happy and safe, and not expected to drag along behind the rest of the family as my baby sister went on the Dumbo rides. So, off we trotted to the back of the line and waited our turn.

    The line was about 45 minutes long, but we amused ourselves people watching and talking about how silly some of the employees must feel, dressed in giant cartoon character suits the way our cousin who worked at Chuck E Cheese did when she had to take her turn wearing the stinky and excruciatingly hot mouse costume. We laughed and joked about what other words we could use besides “hoopla” to describe that intangible energy that I so vehemently objected to. Both readers with a strong command of the language, it was great fun challenging ourselves to find just the right synonym. “Fanfare” “enthusiasm bordering on brain-washing” “propaganda” “Cosby show cornball” and various other terms sprung from our lips. Eventually, we determined that perhaps “Hoopla” was exactly the right word, after all. We were dorks even then!!

    We got to the front of the line and boarded the mild coaster-like ride. And we LOVED it. We shrieked and hollered and shook and laughed and immediately got in line again when it was over. The ride was just the right amount of surprise and spooky, just the right mix of creepy and kooky. We just adored that ride, and it took me completely out of my teenaged snit.

    After the second trip around, we realized it was time to head over to the designated meeting spot, and both my parents could discern a palpable change in my mood. They teased me, of course, but I seem to remember both of them smiling appreciatively at my willingness to admit that this one aspect of the experience was at least enjoyable. And it was.

    I still hated the park, though, and was quite relieved when it was time to head back over to our car parked in Goofy or Pluto or Nebulon-5 or wherever it was (in South America, apparently, as it was sooooo far away). We drove back to our friends’ home two hours away and made plans to visit Busch Gardens a day or two later, this time both families together. I was completely relieved; at least this place, with its focus on the cultures of Africa and its special exhibit of pandas on loan from China would be a bit more intriguing than a constant barrage of “It’s a Small World After All.”

    And, shortly after we arrived at the park, the family recounted to our friends how irritated I had been by–you guessed it–all the Hoopla at Disney. It became a running gag all day. And I didn’t mind a bit. I was too involved on my own little fantasy land, wondering how much this attempt at translating Africa’s many cultures for a decidedly American audience compared with the dark and stormy reality of a continent that was constantly in the news for its war-torn ugliness and heartbreaking famine of colossal scale. But the whole day my burgeoning wanna-be hippie-kid mind was on overdrive, imagining a backpacking trek around the world as I was humming…”don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express?” Heavenly.

    To this day, I always prefer to explore the world at my own quiet pace, and resist any tourist site that makes a concerted effort to tell me how awesome they are and how I simply MUST love all their engineered “fun.” That’s just me. I want to understand the world in a realistic and contemplative manner that allows me to question and ponder what is out there. I’ve found plenty of fun, often in very nerdy pursuits and frequently with only myself as a traveling companion. And, I love it. In fact, I’m leaving for another solo trek to several of my favorite places in just a few days.

    Meanwhile, back at the old homestead, the now-grown siblings haven’t lost their childlike wonder at teasing each other. And, every so often, Baby Sister (who admits she doesn’t recall much of that sweltering day in Orlando) or one of “the boys” will mention the now-infamous Disney trip of yore, and ask me when I’m going to admit that I loved all the hoopla after all. And every time, I come back with, “you realize, of course, that if I ever have kids, I’m making YOU take them to Disney while I go find something chill to do. Like hang out with the Pandas.” It always gets a laugh.

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