Camp Letting-Go

A Bittersweet Journey of Summer

By Michael Gerson

In the venerable tradition of summer, my wife and I sent our two children — a tween and a young teen — off to camp last week. Both boys had butterflies, evidenced by their distracted silence in the car to the airport and the pained, nervous wave from beyond security. But this year there were no tears.

At camp, they gain many pointless, essential experiences — of unfiltered starlight, and outdoor showers, and musty cabins, and spiders in odd corners, and the morning mist off a lake, and belligerent mosquitoes (my youngest claims to have once counted 40 bites), and sweltering evenings when sleep comes hard, and the glorious, eye-watering pleasure of watching a campfire rise and burn.

But the ultimate goal of camp is the cultivation of independence — for a child to be away from home and face problems without the assistance of parents. Children stand on the edge of a cliff, willing themselves to jump into the water below. Or manage a canoe during a thunderstorm on an overnight trip. Or ride an impossibly high zip line into the lake. In the process, they pass from taking external direction to accepting internal challenges: I will do this because I choose to do it — because I want to test myself.

In a way, it is like teaching a child to float: Lie back, and somehow the water will hold you, even if I don’t. Lie back, and somehow the world will hold you.

Many parents don’t quite get this theory. Last summer in the New York Times, Tina Kelley reported how camp officials and counselors are besieged by nervous, high-maintenance parents, calling about bunk placement, private lessons and special cereals and vitamins for their children. It is not uncommon, according to the article, for parents to smuggle cellphones to their sons or daughters against the rules of a camp. Clearly, some parents don’t know how to let go.

Much of this has to do with the modern mania for minimizing risk. A Girl Scout leader in California recalls how, as a child, she broke her arm on two separate occasions. Now, because parents become outraged and litigious at the crunch of bones, the Girl Scout camps where she works forbid even the climbing of trees.

Parents, however, deserve some sympathy. They are making adjustments of their own. At first, the absence of children at camp seems like a reminder of married life before children arrived — a time of dates, movies and unmonitored friskiness. But soon it dawns that the absence of children is not a reminder but a preview — the glimpse of a time when children no longer come home. In an empty house, it quickly becomes clear how much of a couple’s conversation weaves around their children — how much of their own lives has become an investment in the lives they produced.

The yearly departure for camp measures the progress of parental irrelevance. Four years ago, the first time my wife and I left our youngest son at sleep-away camp, there was no pretense of bravery on his part. There were only piteous tears, which returned, according to a camp counselor, every night for two weeks. I wanted nothing more than to run to him, to end the trauma we had inflicted and rescue him from independence. But I didn’t. Each summer this departure grows easier for him and my older son — and more difficult for me, until my bravery finally fails and all the tears are mine.

So this is the independence we seek for our children — to turn our closest relationships into acquaintances. Of course, I knew this getting into parenthood. But the reality remains shocking. For a time, small hands take your own — children look upward, and you fill their entire universe. They remain, to you, the most important things in the world. To them, over time, you become one important thing among many. And then an occasional visit or phone call. And then a memory, fond or otherwise.

The memory of my own father, gone these 17 years, is fond and blurry. He shrank in my mental universe from sun to star, bright and distant. With every season of camp, I dim to my sons as well. It is the appropriate humility of the generations. It is also harder than I thought. And I don’t know how to let go.

Testimonials

  • Before Winnebagoe I couldn’t even last a night away from home. Little did I know I could be away for a full two months with a smile on my face the whole time. Not only is camp my home away from home, the people at camp are my extended family.

    - Madison Bongard

  • Winnebagoe has given my eldest a summer home. It has helped boost her self-confidence and helped her mature and grow. She has tried things she never thought she would try and loved every single thing!

    - Penny Sherman

  • Winnebagoe has had an impact on me that will last a lifetime. I met the love of my life there and three of my closest friends that still remain. To me, there is nothing more important in life than friends, and family. Winnebagoe gave me the opportunity to surround me with both of those things. I miss camp every time June rolls around and it will be that way forever. Thank you Winny!

    - Jon Geller, Camper- 1997-2003; Counsellor- 2004; Tripping- 2005-2010

  • After being at Camp Winnebagoe for 14 summers, I can truly say that it has changed my life. The lasting bonds that are created not only within cabin mates, but between an Inter and a CIT, camper and their counsellor, a camper and their unit head, counsellors and the head staff, is a quality of Winnebagoe that cannot be replicated. Thank you Winnebagoe!

    - Emma Fogel

  • I love that at Winnebagoe you can meet people who are completely different ages than you. You can make friends with whoever you want. Everyone knows everyone and it feels so nice to have so many good people around your day-to-day schedule.

    - Emmy Gnat (2007 to present)

  • Camp Winnebgaoe is my life. I have the greatest time and am unbelievably sad when the summer ends.

    - Jamie Albert (2007 to present)

  • I can’t even begin to imagine how different I would be had I not spent the past four summers at Winnebagoe. There is no place that I would rather spend my summer vacation.

    - Jen Kestenberg (2006 to present)

  • My two years and counting as a unit head were the highlight of my years at Winnebagoe, because I can now pass on to the new campers how special camp is, and make them feel just as comfortable as I did when I was 8.

    - Elyssa Pivnick (1996 – and still counting)

  • I’ve been going to Camp Winnebagoe since I was 9 and I love it there. Whether I’m at swimming, canoeing or playing basketball I’m always busy and having the time of my life.

    - Lucas Gold (2006 to present)

  • I always go back because every year it’s a new year and you never know what fun things will happen. Overall, Camp Winnebagoe is my first choice in all camps.

    - Jack Wunder (2007 to present)

  • Camp Winnebagoe to me is my second home. I know that all my camp memories will last a lifetime and my friends and I will cherish these memories for a long time. This is why Camp Winnebagoe is so important to me!

    - Taylor Milne (2007 to present)

  • From the great activities and programs, to the amazing staff, the lasting memories created, and the life-long friendships that I have created, I cannot begin to count the number of reasons that I continue to come back each year.

    - Ryan Kichler (1996 – and still ticking)

  • Camp Winnebagoe continues to be an escape from reality, an opportunity for fun and great experiences, a chance to grow up and mature with others. It’s a home away from home – and it doesn’t get any better than this!

    - Ari, Marissa and Yonit Grossman (Campers and staff since 1988)

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