Real Talk with Mary Ellen: Summer Camp

 You have to realize that all advice is both steeped in the advice-giver’s context, as well as steeped in years.  For instance, my advice on summer camps taps my context of having been a homeschooling mother of four and only has the perspective of 17 years.  That is, it’s only been 17 years since my now oldest, was 8 years old, old enough for sleepaway summer camp. Seventeen years ago I didn’t “believe” in summer camp.  Heck, we homeschooled and took family vacations at the Jersey shore. I thought our family culture was the best petri dish in which to incubate my young family.

As a rule, I prefer “advice” that has matured.  I may even have more trust in wholesale changes of heart rather than confident, static, unyielding advice.  Well, my opinion about summer camps has changed. 

I love them. 

Once I got over myself, my four kids experienced 7 different camps (26 camp drop offs all together) and 5 different kinds of high school mission trips (that weren’t All Angels’) for a total of 8 mission trips.  Until I added them all up, I wouldn’t have said I knew anything. But yea, I do have some experience.

I like summer camps because Dan was so texture sensitive about feeling the toe seam in his socks that if he hadn’t had Deerfoot Lodge summers, I’d probably have a room off campus in Tucson now ironing his socks.  Here’s what happened. I picked him up, stunned when I saw all the wet and gritty socks in his laundry bag. “How did you manage with socks, Dan?” I asked hesitantly.

“I just had to deal, Mom, there weren’t any more clean ones.”

I-just-had-to-deal.  Five words that utterly changed my opinion about summer camp.  I was literally never going to “teach” him to tolerate toe seams, wrinkles, waist bands, etc. The biggest kicker, though, was the barely contained grin as he spoke those words to me.  He knew and I knew, right then, that he was going to grow up and become a man. And he was going to do it himself while I more or less got out of the way. 

Not all the camp stories were good ones.  Rachel went to Arabic language camp in Minnesota one summer.  It was before I knew enough to check when Ramadan was happening.  Yup, it was Ramadan. As part of “full immersion,” the campers fasted until sundown.  It was also Arab spring and they burned Mubarak in effigy. We’re not sure her Facebook pictures are fully scrubbed yet.  But then again, she hasn’t applied for work at the State Department.

Sarah Grace’s first camp experience was awful; she was bullied.  The camp handled it poorly. Somehow SG worked through the experience and returned the following summer in order to prove to herself hoped-for mastery over bullies. There is no denying SG has some extraordinary “can do” oomph and maybe camp is part of that.

Abby’s birth order, youngest, means she has been the recipient of “Mom loves summer camp” school-of-thought more than any other kid.  She too had one session where she was bullied. I considered never sending her back until I realized she hadn’t actually been traumatized.  It was traumatic (for me) but she wasn’t traumatized. “How did you handle it, Abby?” 

“I tried to think that the girl just didn’t know the right way to behave.” And Abby memorized 45 scripture verses that session.  Which isn’t even possible. God’s Word literally comforted her.

Most summers, my kids’ camps didn’t overlap. One summer in particular, $5000 in various summer camps and my husband and I were still never alone! But finally, the last three summers, with only two children left at home, camps did align.  Mike and I now have the chance to ever be alone. It’s been good timing to be reminded of why we married each other in the first place. You hear of people divorcing after the kids leave home. All those years toiling together. And then kids leave. What if there is no there there? In our case, there appears to be “there” left as we begin to imagine a next season of life. (I hear Abby in the background, “hello!  I’m still here!”).

My own family-of-origin culture did not include summer camps. It was a foreign concept to me. But experience has taught me that summer camps can create extraordinary opportunities for growth that are literally unavailable at home.

All Angels’ families receive summer camp scholarships (camperships) for children attending sleepaway camps. Camperships are funded through the All Angels’ Farm. Apply here. 

Author: Mary Ellen Lehmann

Director of Children & Youth Ministries at All Angels' Church in New York City. Mary Ellen and her husband, Mike, have been married 30 years, and have four children. Several of them are adults.

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