I spent ten of my childhood summers at sleepaway camp in Missouri. I started when I was eight, and the term was four weeks long. The only parental contact was through letters, and this one month a year on my "own" was as influential on my life as anything else I could name.
When I tell people that I went away for such a lengthy period of time at such a young age, they are usually aghast. They can't believe my parents would do that, they can't believe that I loved it, they simply cannot imagine sending their own children away like that. (As if it were punishment instead the best time of my life and, let's face it, probably a great break for my parents.)
Most of the kids I knew went to some kind of summer camp, ranging from week-long church camps to five and six week-long athletic camps. This doesn't seem to be the norm anymore, especially the longer terms.
From the many conversations I've had with people on this subject, I think there are three main factors that parents don't do this anymore:
Cost is the most obvious and current factor. With a slumping economy, luxuries like camps and vacations are among the first to go. And sleepaway camps are not cheap and are certainly not getting cheaper. If families do have money set aside for summer fun, they'll probably opt for something less singular than summer camp. This is understandable.
Athletic programs. As sports leagues become more and more competitive (read: crazy), kids are expected to spend their summers training or practicing or attending required camps for their particular sport. This trend is becoming more and more prevalent and I've known more than one family that has had to rearrange their vacations or other schedules to accomodate a sports team. This, to me, is outrageous. But also a reality.
Parenting has changed. I assure you that my parents felt no guilt when they put me on a bus each year bound for the Ozarks. In fact, I know they saw it as an investment in my life. These days, you're not considered an "involved parent" unless you know your childs every move and are on the committee for every structured activity. Among the things said to me regarding summer camp are, "I could never be away from them that long" or "My child wouldn't do well, he needs me." But summer camp taught me things that I never, ever would have learned at home. Keeping a clean bunk, accountablility as part of a cabin or team, not to mention the mental and physical hurdles I crossed when faced alone with a water slide, a zipline, or a barn swing, made an enormous difference in how I approached my school year and the rest of the world around me. These are things that I could not have learned in my own home in the same way.
My nieces now go to the same summer camp where my siblings and I share memories. My camp, once thriving with long wait lists, has now consolidated to two terms instead of three and cut back in other ways to make up for the waning applications. Even so, I have seen this new generation affected in the same way I was each summer, and I email friends that I've known from our years of sunburns and ponytails and I tell them that the chain has continued.
I just hope that it's not a tradition that dies away completely.
photo by Leshaines123