From the age of 9 until the age of 19, I spent one month every summer at overnight camp: three years in northern Michigan, six years in northwest Wisconsin at an all-girls camp, and one summer on a rapidly moving travel trip through two-thirds of the United States.
I loved camp. I made friends I still talk to today via Facebook and I have fond memories of walking under impressively tall evergreens, my first (second and third) crush on boys at inter-camp dances and water-skiing on smooth-as-glass Lake Pokegama.
But I also remember that many days of the first five summers I spent away from home were filled with teary homesickness and fiercely written letters to my parents about how much I missed them. My younger sister hated camp. My younger brother loved it. This array of varied overnight camp experiences is pretty typical for the average American family.
For a parent, the question then becomes: Should you send your child to overnight camp?
Overnight camp trends
In some areas of southeast Michigan, it seems like everyone goes away to camp. A rite of passage for many, the trend to send kids away for intense on-your-own growing up time and independence-gathering is a given in some communities.
That’s not true for much of America, however. Only 16.2 percent of American kids between the ages of 5 and 19 attend camp, not all of which is sleep-away.
Little research exists on the merits or concerns of overnight camp and which communities send kids away in the summer. Anecdotally, I’ve heard overnight camp can be a strong tradition, starting as early as age 7. In other communities, the trend varies, with kids who do attend overnight camp starting at older ages and going for shorter periods of time, to camps with a specific focus or theme.
The American Camp Association has conducted and published almost all of the available research on summer camp in this country. Even then, former CEO Peg Smith says the organization can’t say what the camp-going trend is compared to previous generations. “We do not have firm data,” she says. “There may be fewer camps, but more campers attending camp.”
While overnight camping became popular post-World War II, due to the baby boom and growing economy, only 16 percent of American children attended overnight camp, according to historian Eleanor Eells. The 1980s and 1990s saw a decline in the number of new residential camps as camps closed due to a decline in the number of campers and the request for shorter stays – as a result, camps needed more kids to fill the summer and keep from going under financially.
The popularity of overnight camp waxes and wanes as disposable income changes. And, in many American communities, summer is the time for family trips, solitude and independent exploration and play.
Marsha Mitnick, a psychologist from Farmington Hills who has three kids, says many of her friends never even considered sending their kids away to camp. “That’s just not what they did,” she says.
Pros, cons and concerns
Many pro-sleep-away parents say sending kids to camp builds independence. As a psychologist, Mitnick says there’s no correlation between early overnight experiences away from mom and dad and later independence.
“It takes a lot of preparation to get a kid ready to go to overnight camp and be separated from their family for long periods of time,” says Mitnick.
“Separation is a process. Independence is an abstract concept, so getting a child to be independent starts at age 2 and 3 and it should be happening in your kitchen and your living room,” says Mitnick. “It’s not going to happen because you send them away to overnight camp. A child could be very independent going to camp three miles away; they just may not like sleeping out of their house. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be independent.”
Jacob Knittel first attended overnight camp at the age of 11. The son of Jodi Knittel hadn’t even attended a sleepover party when he decided he wanted to spend four weeks in Thailand with Children’s International Summer Village, or CISV.
“Overnight camp is a finite amount of time for your kid to experience being on their own,” says Knittel, who attended Girl Scouts camp when she was a kid. “They test out all the things that you’ve taught them and all the things they don’t believe to be true, and make their own decisions about how they work in life and what their beliefs are and who to build relationships with.
“Doris Allen is the person who founded CISV and her point is that at age 11, they have their values set but all the social imprinting has not been set,” adds Knittel, who wrote “advice letters” for her son to open and “hear” her voice and guidance when he couldn’t call to ask a question. “They’re able to leave home but with guidance. That made sense to me.”
Half of Jacob’s friends go to overnight camp, Knittel says. “The people who choose not to send their kids away, it’s not that they don’t think their kids are ready. It’s the parent. It requires a lot of trust in the organization you are going to send your kid with and the adults that are going to be with your child,” she says. “So you’ve talked to somebody and they’ve had a great experience with the camp.”
A personal choice
Mitnick says there’s no set age when a child should be ready to leave his parents. “Some 7-year-olds will do fine going away to overnight camp, but I don’t think all 7-year-olds should,” she says. “I worry that there are children going to camp who are not ready to be away for such a long period of time, but they’re going because their parents want them to.”
Ingrid Mayer, a Bloomfield Hills mother of two, sees both sides. “You want your kid to have this broad great experience, and I am all for that – but I don’t trust everybody,” she says.
“You don’t know everybody at that camp. Something could happen to your child that could go completely unnoticed. They’re very vulnerable. I want to have some connection with my child to be able to go through the experiences with them and help guide them if things happen.”
Like so many decisions of parenting, the question of overnight camp is a personal and a passionate one. And there’s no right answer. Overnight camp is not becoming obsolete. Advocates are ardent that it’s essential, while the majority of families that don’t partake in this long-time summer tradition are perfectly fine without.
As a mother myself now, I’m on the fence. I don’t feel the need to push, though relatives have strong opinions that I should.
For us, summer is a time to explore, to slow down, to linger outside as the sunlight lingers, and to be together. We take trips, we talk, we pick berries at local orchards and hike. I tell my children that if they want to go to overnight camp one day I’ll send them, but if they don’t, that’s OK, too.
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2017.