I’m about to thrust my child into a four-week-long situation that I know, from experience, to be a total misery.
Of course, I’m not going to tell her this. Introducing children to new and potentially life-altering experiences necessarily means trying to convince them that terrible things are just fine, even good.
Here is the truth: I hated camp. I hated camp so much, and continue to hate it and to resent the fact that I hated it, that I’ve come to develop a grand, if wobbly, theory about it. The world divides into those people who despised camp and those people who loved it. What about those who never even went? They would probably fall into either camp if they had.
People who like camp, naturally (that’s a key word in this divide) are different from me in every way. Campers are outgoing; they are out-everything, really — outdoorsy, outward bound. They dart through bushes without worrying about ticks or slugs or sharp metal objects hidden in the undergrowth. They enjoy getting undressed in front of large groups of strangers. They know how to throw and catch Frisbees. They don’t mind bologna.
“It’s not for everybody!” said Doug Herzog, president of Viacom Entertainment Group, when I confessed my disqualifications. Herzog was a successful attendee at Camp Scatico in Elizaville, N.Y., where (yes, it’s true) his parents met and fell in love. He says, “There really wasn’t anything” he disliked about camp, adding that “I loved all the guys, who became great dear friends, and remain so to this day. I loved the outdoor aspect, the sports aspect, the camaraderie aspect.” He went for 11 years.
Lots of people like camp. According to the most recent American Camp Association study of camp owners, 56 percent of American camps have a higher enrollment in 2014 than in the previous year, with only 18 percent reporting lower numbers.
Camp is supposed to be personally and culturally significant. At artsy summer camps everywhere, theatrical youths hone college-application talents while solidifying lifelong friendships. (See: Meg Wolitzer’s best-selling novel, “The Interestings.”) On the NBC comedy “Camp,” going away for the summer is a charming, lovable, all-American rite of passage. At Scout camp, awkward youths experience that transformative fit of first love. (See: Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.”) See “Wet Hot American Summer,” Jewish kids, same thing.
“For me, camp was about becoming an American,” said Priscilla Painton, an executive editor at Simon & Schuster, who grew up in France before moving to the United States. “There’s no lesson like being the person who made your cabin fail the cleanliness check and having your cabin-mates say, ‘You have to buck up.’ At camp, you learn the values of shame, of community, of teamwork.”
All I learned was the shame. But the data say she’s right. According to a study of 5,000 families conducted by Philliber Research Associates and the American Camp Association, three-fourths of campers said they did things there they were afraid to do; 9 in 10 said camp made them feel good about themselves. Parents and campers alike report that children show significant growth in self-esteem, independence, leadership and friendship. They learned to explore, to be adventurous, to become environmentally aware.
Here’s how all that went down for me. My first summer at sleep-away camp, I awoke at night to frantic screams everywhere. “It’s a burglar,” I realized, wisely crouching under my covers while every other camper was slashed to bits by the knife-wielding intruder. The next morning I found out that I had missed a spectacular display of the Northern Lights.
At another camp, we were supposed to swim twice daily in a former leech farm, where two imposing containers of salt were placed on the beach “just in case.” I never went in.
I recall that at still another camp (yes, I tried a new one each year, for four years, hoping to correct my failures), I spent several hours wandering a forest by myself. I knew we were supposed to be playing Capture the Flag, and I knew there were two teams. I just didn’t know which team I was on. I think someone found me close to dark, but I’ve blocked out the rest. When night fell, I wrote long, plangent letters home, three-quarters of which consisted of lists requesting books and candy — anything to escape the onslaught of rustic activity.
“What I loved about camp was the hands-on, can-do environment,” said Victoria Harmon, who works in communications for the Energy Department of New York state. “We worked the organic farm. We made our own food in the morning. We washed our own dishes. One day you would see a cow being shot in the head and then slaughtered. The next day, we slaughtered a pig.”
I’m someone who stopped eating meat within a week of working at a restaurant.
Each of my camps had one thing in common. I didn’t like them, and they didn’t especially like me. Camp girls form their own special strata of the tween hierarchy. Girls who liked camp could do cat’s cradle without cutting off their blood circulation. They didn’t mind drinking from metal containers and were not especially attractive to mosquitoes. They knew how to hit balls with bats.
Jen Bluestein, a senior program officer at the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation and a veteran of Emily’s List (which supports female Democratic candidates who are abortion-rights advocates), was probably one of those girls. “I loved camp for the same reason I like working on political campaigns,” she said. “You got to know everyone so well, and you were with them all the time and you were having adventures together. I liked being part of a self-sustaining little microcosm of kids.”
That’s precisely why I didn’t make it. Camp was for joiners; I was a loner. Camp was for participants; I was an observer. Camp was for extroverts; Susan Cain practically based her book on me.
My experiences at sleep-away camp only solidified earlier, unpleasant encounters with day camp. I didn’t want to sing “Kumbaya,” and I didn’t want to sing the “Cat’s in the Cradle” and I sure as hell did not want to sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for the 47th time. (I still can’t get it out of my head.) Given my aversion to poolside puddles (we all know what’s in there) and murky lake beds, I was never going to make it past the pollywogs. If pressed to name something positive about camp, I’d have to say the Linden cookies served at lunchtime.
But here’s the troubling part. As wildly different as happy campers are from me, I like many of the people who liked camp. They are people who don’t seem to me entirely crazy. Alissa Quart, the author of books about outsiders and child prodigies among other subjects, adored her quasi-socialist arts camp.
“We ran the pub shop and put out our own magazines and books,” she said. “We were nerdy 14-year-olds. It was heaven. We made jewelry and scarves and did glass blowing. It was this high-level artisanal experience.”
Similarly, Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News and a self-described “bookish” child, relished his summer camp experience in New Hampshire. “There was this sense of us against the world, rather than you against the world,” he told me. “It was like ‘Meatballs.’”
I didn’t like that movie.
Yet I have the distinct feeling my daughter will like sleep-away camp very much, just as she liked day camp. She begged to go, which I choose not to take personally. Though she has yet to pack, I am already able to report that she loves it. And the crazy thing? I think I love that she loves it and hate that I didn’t.