Rites of Passage (aka: Why I Want to Send My Kids to Camp)

Summer Camp Kids Backpacking Every year, as summer approaches, I am consumed by the overwhelming urge to send my kids away to summer camp. No, silly – not as a punishment. And not because I seek time alone apart from my kids. Honestly, they are terrific kids, and I enjoy spending time with them. Summer camp is the opposite of a punishment. It is a treat. An American annual tradition. A rite of passage for school-aged kids. And in my own personal memories, a heavenly oasis in the middle of an otherwise dull summer vacation.

I was discussing summer camp the other day with my kids while my younger brother happened to be visiting. The conversation went something like this:

Me: (Sigh).          Wasn’t YMCA Camp Ravencliff the best?

My Brother:       Yeah. We had the best time.

Both of Us:         Y-M! Y-M! Y-M-C-A! C-A! C-A! C-A-M-P!

Y-M-C-A C-A-M-P, Y-M-C-A C-A-M-P!


Of course, my kids were stunned speechless by our sudden outburst. I then took advantage of their speechlessness by gushing about how awesome YMCA summer camp was. Well, okay, the powdered milk was not awesome. Nor were the water ticks that stung like bees while we swam in the warm, green Eel River (yes, I think there were eels in the Eel River). But the cabins, and the crazy games and campfire skits, and the wacky counselors, and the songs, the songs, the plethora of silly and significant songs which millions of other children have learned during their own summer camp experiences – those were the things that made camp great. 3 kids at summer camp

But, like many great things in life, summer camp is dreadfully expensive. For this reason, my kids have missed out. Well, that isn’t entirely true. My oldest has been to summer camp twice, and loved every second. And all three kids have had opportunities every year to go away to outdoor education camp with their classes at school. We also go camping as a family at least once every summer. So no, they have not exactly missed out. But still, I am dying to send my daughter to one of the girl scout camps where I was once a counselor, where girls her age can go backpacking, sailing, kayaking, and horseback riding. I would love to send my younger son off to his big brother’s camp, where he can learn archery and try out the ropes course. But it is oh, so expensive.

So I will wait. And this time, perhaps do a better job of saving money just for the purpose of letting my youngest kids experience one year of summer greatness. One week to observe the great rite of passage that is summer camp, so that when they are adults, their eyes will light up as they launch into the camp song that warms their memories, as my camp song has done for me, for my siblings, and for so many other children across the country.

Maybe some people will read this and think that it is not worthwhile to spend hundreds of dollars so that my kids can enjoy a week of silly games and songs. But it is so much more than that. For me, summer camp was my first foray into the world away from my family and those who knew me. It was my first opportunity to grow and get to know myself and my place in the world in the absence of that which was familiar and safe. I grew more during those seven days of camp than at any other point throughout the year. And I will always keep with me the special, magical feeling that came when, every evening, when the sky was black and brilliant with stars, I sat before the bright, crackling campfire, surrounded by other campers – my instant friends for the week. Before us stood the camp directors, one gently strumming a guitar, and the other leading us in our nightly song. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, seeking peace and comfort, I return to those nights, and that song, which guided us back through the woods to the safety of our cabins, where we would await another day, ready for the next day of adventure.

Peace I ask of thee o river,
Peace, peace, peace.
E’re I learn to live serenely,
Cares will cease.
From the hills I gather courage,
Visions of the day to be.
Strength to lead and strength to follow,
All are given unto me.
Peace I ask of thee o river,
Peace, peace, peace.


2 responses to “Rites of Passage (aka: Why I Want to Send My Kids to Camp)

  1. I was of camp age in the 1950’s. Although my mother was a Christian Scientist she did believe in polio. Not only was I denied camp but also the community swimming pool. A girl I admired was a regular at the pool and we spoke, our fingers gripping the chain-link fencing, when I noticed that she shaved her underarms. My armpits lacked even a hint of hair and I reflected that the saving grace of not spending the summer at the pool was that I did not have to bare my immature body.

    I did join the Boy Scouts, another rite of passage, where bullying was an organized rite. I remembered searching for “left-handed shore line” and “bed” rock for my betters. Even so, the cold mornings, merit badges and camporees stand out in my memory. Outside of camping we all find our totems, or objects that define us to ourselves.

    I had the the good fortune to find a copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl” and a trove of older copies of the Evergreen Review, a cutting edge literary mag of the “Beat Generation.” Mostly an outsider to those who stole cars and had “rumbles” in the park, I was spared the problems of growing up in NYC. Camp serves a similar insulating effect for your children. They will learn to cleave to idols of the wood instead of those of the street.

    • That’s certainly the idea of camp, Carlos. Growing up in the Bay Area, camp was always a tremendous and welcome change from the scenes of traffic and buildings, and an escape from the star-less night sky. Most of our summers were spent in public pools (sorry you missed out on that), the public library, or “camped-out” in front of the television, watching cartoons and 70’s / 80’s sitcoms. I’m pretty sure that I eventually read every book in the children’s section, and saw every episode of The Brady Bunch at least once. 😀 But then came camp, and camp meant nature hikes, and starry nights, and floating down the river in giant inner tubes. It meant challenging yourself to jump from a high cliff into the river, learning about knot-tying and edible plants, and finding out that fun music was not always from Michael Jackson or Madonna, but could be made with friends around the campfire. It meant fishing and wading in a creek in your bare feet, learning to love the smell of redwood trees, and learning how to shoot a bow and arrow for the very first time. It was about learning to love adventure, and to embrace the wonder and beauty of nature, which I still do today.

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