Turning unhappy campers into happy ones

Happy campers
Photo: Camp Alleghany Archives.

We’ve all heard the tales of woe — how camp was “a nightmare,” or “the worst experience of my life.”

Sadly, these dramatic tales of disappointment are so full of grief that they risk drowning out the far greater number of success stories about camp experiences.

That’s why when I read Pamela Paul’s “Not a Happy Camper: Summer Camp Is Remembered, Sometimes Not So Fondly,” in the New York Times recently, I was glad to learn that even though she remembered summer camp as a terrible thing for herself, she was at least a wise enough mom to not inflict her own experience onto her kids.

Who is camp for?

But I was sad to see that she carved the world up into “summer camp people” and “non-summer camp people.” Pish-posh! Lot’s of different types of people love and treasure summer camp.

To me the issue isn’t so much that camp is either right for you at your first encounter and if not, “that’s it, I’m breaking up with camp!”

For many kids, just going to sleep away camp is itself a big deal — being away from mom and dad, sleeping outdoors, making friends with strangers? Sure, that’s hard, and not just for kids of 6 or 9 but also for pre-teens and teens.

I wouldn’t just be saying, “Give camp another try,” to those who had a bad (or what they remember as a bad) experience if it was just me. Yes, I want to enroll campers but we’re pretty popular, and campers keep coming until we’re full. Rather,  I say this because I value the role of camp in kids’ lives (and frankly in the lives of families),

Don’t take it from me

I also say it because I get sooooo many testimonials from campers and their parents saying, “We gave it a second try and the next year was much better. She just needed to get used to it. ”

Or, “First there were the complaints, but then soon we started hearing, ‘at camp we made this or we did that and it was so much fun.’ Soon it was clear that camp wasn’t as bad — and she wasn’t as homesick, as we feared.”

But don’t take my word for it. Here are two posts by Camp Alleghany Blog contributors who put it in their own words, one from a camper and one from a couple of parents who experienced a winter camp reunion with their girls:

Yes, the first time at camp — or anywhere — can be hard for kids and even for adults. But before you designate a homesick camp experience or what seems initially like a “bad” camp experience as a sign that camp is just “not for her,” look again. Take a breath. Give it some time.

We usually find that in the rare instances when a camper says she didn’t enjoy it, something else is at work.

And above all, if you didn’t like camp as a child, follow Pamela Paul’s approach and let your kids trod their own path. You never know, after that you might end up wanting to go to an adult camp yourself to give the great outdoors and campfires and s’mores another try.

–Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls