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I Want Camp

Why Do Kids Get All the Fun?


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Considering the mess on my desk, and the muddle in my head, you’d think we were applying to college. My checkbook cowers beneath too many glossy brochures. My brain stews in conflicting data: dates, deadlines, and deposits, reputations and recommendations …

But it’s not college-application time—it’s summer-camp scheduling season. When I was a kid, that meant two choices: cot-sleeping at overnight camp or handball-playing at day camp. The most I learned at either was how to treat sunburn and skeeter bites.

Starshine Roshell

Times have changed. The summer-camp industry has exploded like a red ant hill under the trouncing cleats of World Cup Soccer Camp. Or like a failed soufflé at Kids Cook! Culinary Camp. Or like a rocket ship at Destination Science Camp.

These days you need a spreadsheet to sort out your kids’ endless options. Summer camps are a $12-billion-per-year industry, according to the American Camp Association (ACA), and there are more than 12,000 camps in the U.S. Unlike the offerings of my youth, today’s camps seem exceedingly specialized and impossibly—even unreasonably—fun.

Determined to cultivate kids’ hard-won confidence and spark their blossoming imaginations (or at least hell-bent on convincing the paying parents that’s what they’re doing), camps cover every conceivable interest under the searing summer sun. The ACA boasts camps for caving and clowning, fencing and farming, rafting and riflery. There’s rock rappelling, tap dancing, and “lamp working” (really?). There’s even a Secret Agent Camp, where mini wanna-Bonds learn stealth tactics, martial arts, and code-deciphering. All of which are invaluable in middle school.

But every year, as I wade through the calendars, recoil at the costs, and play the high-stakes match-your-kid-with-the-correct-camp game, I find myself wondering … for god’s sake, why?

Forgive me, but doesn’t a kid’s whole life basically amount to camp? Aside from racing through homework and dragging the occasional trash can to the curb, don’t children pretty much get to do what they want—pursuing their passions and testing their burgeoning ingenuity—all year long? My kids spend half their lives confidently goofing off and imaginatively knocking about: building lean-to habitats for pill bugs, perfecting flips on the backyard trampoline, inventing signature desserts by mixing unpalatable ingredients on my just-cleaned kitchen counters.

It ain’t work is all I’m saying.

Shouldn’t we parents be the ones to ship off to camp instead? Us. The ones who wipe down the sticky kitchen and ice the acrobats’ sprained ankles and dispose of the inevitable pill bug cadavers. We’re the stressed ones! We’re the unimaginative ones, by god! We’re the resentful ones who suffered through years of lame lanyard-making camps in our own tortured youths!

This year, my husband and I found ourselves fantasizing about the sort of camps we’d like to attend if, miraculously, we had 10 unscheduled weeks to fill (i.e., weren’t needed on round-the-clock kitchen clean-up duty). We figured we’d start at Peace and Quiet Camp followed by a blissful week at Immaculate House Camp. From there, I suggested a stint at Bathtub Camp (I don’t know what that is, but how could it be bad?).

Around midsummer, we’d try one of those camps that let you experience life from a fun new perspective. Wealthy Camp, maybe. Or High Metabolism Camp.

As the season wound down, my husband hoped to sign us up at Pie Camp.

What do you do at Pie Camp?” I asked.

Eat pie,” he explained.

Ah,” I said. “Do you also bake pie?”

I guess we could,” he allowed. “When we’re not eating it.”

And at that moment, I realized—as you no doubt have—that my spouse and I have no imagination whatsoever. But it’s not our fault.

We went to lousy camps.

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Starshine Roshell is the author of Wife on the Edge.

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