bored little boy at summer camp

Summer Camp Was A Dream For My Kids Until It Wasn’t

“It wasn’t just the weird performative nature of summer camp that always left them disappointed.”

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March was the month when summer camp seemed perfect to us. March in Canada, when everything is an unremitting gray and smells of dirt and slush, summer a laughable memory that might never happen again. The most exciting thing we could do was go for an open swim at the YMCA and walk home after with damp hair and damp towels in gym bags that were starting to get moldy. We would seet the brochure for local day camps and we would all leaf through them, excited at the itineraries like they were all-inclusive Caribbean vacations. Archery! Kayaking! Nature walks! Pottery! Those exclamation points saving us from March, an absolute ellipses of a month.

I didn’t go to summer camp as a kid in the ‘80s. Summer camps were too expensive for my mom; we didn’t have a car, and my aunt lived with us so she didn’t have to worry about day care. We just kind of ran around all summer, eating raw rhubarb out of people’s gardens, throwing tennis balls against walls. I think, if I’m being honest, I would have hated camp when I was a kid. But the young mom me looked back at the kid me and imagined I would have loved it. Which is just one of the reasons I wanted my kids to go to summer camp.

I wanted my kids to head out for the morning all clean and excited and come home at the end of the day smelling of sunscreen and bug spray and sweat and sun. I wanted them to come home telling me stories about adventures in the forest, about putting on plays in front of makeshift curtains strung between two trees, about swimming in the cool lake in the afternoon after trying out the rope swing. I wanted all four of my boys to be modern or classic versions of Huck Finn. Just some goofy kids kayaking up and down the river that ran through our town, trailing their fingers through the water and finding a steady peace inside their little chests. I planned to make them dinner after, whatever they wanted. Cut up a big watermelon and eat it sitting on our back porch with the juice streaming down their chins. Then bath, then bed. Then dreaming about whatever madcap adventures their instructors had planned for tomorrow.

Just some goofy kids kayaking up and down the river that ran through our town, trailing their fingers through the water and finding a steady peace inside their little chests.

I also wanted them to go because it was cheap. Where we lived all of the summer camps were subsidized by the city so all kids could go. And they didn’t even do that thing that happens sometimes where they subsidize the ones that don’t sound fun and keep the good ones for the rich kids. All of the camps were for everyone. I worked in the afternoons waiting tables at a local restaurant so these camps felt like offering the kids a holiday instead of another day in day care.

We chose these camps together. All of us around the dinner table saying things like, “Oh that actually sounds amazing!” and “I know other people going to that one. It sounds good!” We chose camps with music and drama and swimming and crafts.

And every year they hated every damn minute of it.

Like me, they loved the idea of camp. The sound of splashing and laughter and arrows hitting bullseyes on haystacks in fields with friends. They liked the idea of themselves as adventurers, as horse whisperers, as white water rafters. And they were these things when they didn’t have an audience unless the audience was me, which is just like having a constant clapping in their ears. At summer camp their audience was a question mark and they were pretty sure they didn’t have the answers.

It wasn’t just the weird performative nature of summer camp that always left them disappointed. In March they were bored but by summer they didn’t want to miss out on the splendid at-home boredom they thought was their due after a long school year. Day camp made all of them feel untethered, uneasy in their own bodies. School was one thing, but this — this learning of skills in front of strangers was so immediate, so personal, they couldn’t wrap their heads around it.

They also hate, hate, HATE, forced revelry of any kind. Another thing that might be my fault. So being prodded into a kayak for the first time by a 14-year-old boy who was clapping and singing was awful for them. A nightmare. Especially if they were separated at the camp or, even worse, went to one completely by themselves. That year was a tough one. That was the year I almost cracked. My nervous 11-year-old begging me not to leave him there and some older teen instructor screaming out, “Come on! Don’t be shy, we’re all friends here!” Oh how I nearly caved then — his eyes enormous, his face mortified.

But I had to work. The camp was paid for, and so I turned and walked home.

Friends told me it was better that way, to encourage the kids to finish what they started. I told them the same thing and maybe we were right. Maybe staying all day made them understand resilience, understand that they couldn’t always back out of the uncomfortable parts of life.

Or maybe I left them there all day because it was easier for me. And they were lonely, and nervous. And right to hate it.

I recently asked my son if he liked summer camp as a kid. “Oh yeah, I liked the idea of it,” he told me. So I guess he doesn’t know the answer either.

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