by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Why are people so loyal to their sleepaway camps? What exactly happens at camp that makes people rhapsodize about the experience thirty or forty years later? Whenever I tell people that I am curious about the camp experience, the stories start to pour out. “I loved my camp,” they say in a dreamy voice. “A camp prize is better than any other award in life,” passionately declared a newspaperman at a dinner party. He had won a bunch of journalism awards. Apparently, none of these trophies held the emotional power of that camp sweater that he still keeps in a drawer.
What is it about the summer camp experience — just a few weeks away for perhaps two or three seasons — that goes so deep under their skin? Not many people rave about their schools or neighborhood the way they talk about camp. As a psychologist, I am curious about the mystery of camp. What’s the magic ingredient?
An alum of a YMCA camp in the Berkshires insisted, “It’s the cabin chat. No other camp has the cabin chat. It’s an amazing experience.” So, I traveled to that camp and sat in on one cabin chat with eleven-year-old boys and another with fourteen-year-old girls. In the total darkness, the counselor would strike a match, light a candle, and lead a discussion. By candlelight the campers would take turns talking about their day, their feelings, and their thoughts on a philosophical question posed by the counselor. It was pretty powerful; in the moment it felt close to sacred. Indeed, two-thirds of the counselors there told me that they had more powerful feelings about their camp than they did about their family’s religion.
Yet kids from other camps that don’t have a cabin chat every night may feel just as strongly about their camp. At a canoe-tripping camp in Ontario they tell me the secret ingredient is being out in the wilderness and paddling all day. At a general camp in Vermont they tell me it is the close relationships between staff and kids, and of course the singing in the dining hall each night. At an arts camp in Connecticut they tell me the magic is self-expression and the freedom that each child has to choose activities.
What is the magic of camp? After a whole summer of sitting in on campfires, cabin chats, and dining hall sing-alongs; after laughing through a lot of silly campfire skits; after watching kids compete in color wars and canoeing contests and stage first-rate productions of Broadway musicals — I’m closer to an answer.
First, it is absolutely magical for kids to be away from their parents. The sweetest, most satisfying moments of childhood (think back to your own life) are almost always when you are away from your parents. Why? Because as a child you see yourself constantly in the mirror of your parents’ eyes; you judge yourself by their words, their smiles, their eyebrows. You cannot escape the power of your parents’ faces and judgments. At camp, you aren’t getting any parental feedback, not for weeks at a time. What a great change! Apparently, there is a little Harry Potter in every child, yearning to be an orphan, at least for a while. Children are suddenly free to experience themselves anew; they face challenges and accomplishments that are theirs alone — experiences that don’t have to be run through the parental cognitive-ruminative-metabolic-judicial machinery. It doesn’t matter what your parents think; it belongs to you.
Secondly, the relationship between campers and counselors is pure gold. The younger kids love and admire the counselors and that respect brings out the best in nineteen-, twenty-, and twenty-one-year-olds. They are at their most responsible, compassionate, and loving when they are put in charge of younger children, and the younger children knock themselves out trying to impress these young demi-gods. I have seen many children hug young adults this summer and have seen the young adults hug them back with genuine protectiveness and caring. There isn’t enough mixing of half-generations in our world.
Finally, if camps are successful, they create a private world with its own rules and rituals and magic. Deep down, all children not only yearn to be Harry Potter, they want a Hogwarts; they want to have their own harrowing adventures with no (apparent) safety net. Suburban life and school don’t provide children with much of an arena for adventure or their imaginations. Camps have the ability to create that world that belongs only to a child and his or her friends. Now that is magic.
Michael Thompson, Ph.D., is the coauthor of Raising Cain. He is presently writing a book about camps and overnight school trips called Homesick and Happy and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org