I can’t stop thinking about Jordana Horn’s recent post about her son who came home from camp early. I don’t know what camp he attended, what he did to make sure he was sent home, or any of the other circumstances, yet I feel that we failed him. We – the community of camps and the partnership of camps and parents – failed to give him the best possible experience. And that’s a shame.
Certainly, there are youngsters who are not “camp kids.” These are the ones who, for whatever reason, just can’t be in the 24/7 camp environment with its noise, lack of privacy, and outdoorsy living. And, of course, there are the “lifers” who would spend every minute in camp if given the opportunity. (A few parents asked this summer if we would open a camp boarding school, so their children could spend all year with us!)
Just like most things in life, however, most kids are in the middle. Especially in their first summer at camp, most kids enter with some trepidation and are able to soar once something “clicks.” That can happen through a friendship, a connection with a staff member, a particular activity, or locating a quiet place under a special tree. Sometimes it’s easy to find and, other times, it takes some help from the staff. And in some situations, we call the parents in for help. If we do our jobs right, we get everyone involved in the right way and at the right time, so we can help make the magic of camp come alive before it’s too late.
Where we so often go wrong – and by “we,” I mean both camp professionals and parents – is that we don’t really listen to the kids. Sometimes, we are so concerned with our own successes that we don’t hear the kid advocating for himself. And we forget that this advocacy is, in and of itself, a success. Finishing camp is not the be all and end all of life experience; it is possible to have a full and rich life without completing a summer of overnight camp. So if a kid goes home from camp, it doesn’t have to be a failure or a loss; in fact, it can be just the opposite – it can be an opportunity for learning and for growth. If we push too hard and wait too long, we set our kids up to do what Jordana’s son did – something that they know will get them sent home. And then we, as the adults, get angry. But at that point, whose fault is it? Can we blame a child who has been telling us what he really needs for doing something to make this clear when we just won’t listen? Wouldn’t we better off thanking him for knowing his limits and showing him that, sometimes, kids can know better than adults?
One of my favorite songs on the high holidays says: “Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul. Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn and reborn.” For tens of thousands of kids each summer, Jewish camp is the land of their soul – it is the place where they can most be themselves. With so many camps to choose from, I believe that there is the “right” camp for virtually every kid. Sometimes it takes a little bit of work to find it, but it’s there. And in the cases when a particular camp doesn’t fit – or camping in general just isn’t right – it’s up to us, as the adults, to help the child return home so he can return to himself, return to the strength and support of his family, and be reborn as (or, at least, reminded of!) the amazing person he is.