Why I send my teen to camp

My oldest daughter was a reluctant camper. 

Every year, she went because we told her she had to and that she might (one day!) enjoy it. 

We started trying various overnight camps in first grade. She always packed at the last minute and routinely copped an attitude when we’d near the grounds. 

Each year we’d hold our breath, hoping she’d get out of the car without kicking and screaming or needing a hand to gently push her to greet her counselors respectfully. 

As she grew older, it became even more cumbersome: Her interests and friends pulled her in even more directions. 

Our rule about camp was simple: She could choose which camp to attend. But the camp had to be an overnight camp.

Then, last summer, something surprising happened: Miraculously, she went with less of a fight. Reading her letters (and hearing her stories at the end of the session), we were happy we’d stuck with it. Camp was starting to get fun!  

Gaining new skills 

The first highlight of her camp experience was finally getting up on water skis: She got up for three short seconds! 

She was so proud that, in her retelling of the story to anyone who would listen, she quadrupled the time she actually skied. She soon was able to master the skill and circled the lake, screaming at the top of her lungs how AMAZING it felt. 

She got to finally quiet those tween voices that belittled her after previous attempts. And she canceled out the bad experience just two summers before when she became stranded in a canoe with a counselor during a storm. 

Waterskiing meant she’d conquered her fears. Her chest poofed out as she reveled in something she thought she’d never ever accomplish.

Growing up

Camp, we noticed, also gave our daughter a much-needed break from her parents.

Instead, her counselors were her “parents” for two “long” (as she qualifies it) weeks. They reminded her to chew with her mouth closed, be less dramatic and enthusiastically join the group on cabin nights whether or ot she found the activity appealing. 

It delights me to know that she heard them loud and clear — and processed their words. She knows we’re happy to hear what we say at home will be reiterated at camp in a safe and loving environment. 

We want our daughter to be prepared for the real world one day. We don’t want her coddled. She needs to understand the rules of society and how to exist within them. 

Cabin life helps with that: Eight girls in one small space with two counselors in an adjoining room isn’t like home. And campers must walk outside to use shared bathrooms and showers. They sit at one table as a group for all their meals and take turns clearing the plates and cleaning the tables. 

Counselors and campers alike come from different countries and socioeconomic backgrounds and speak different languages. Kids begin to understand their role as part of a broader camp community. And they get an excellent introduction to communal living, a taste of future dorm life!

Technology free

No phones are allowed at the camps we’ve chosen for our kids. And there’s no Internet access —no texting, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook.

It’s an old-fashioned environment that I yearn for my kids to know — a world where no one can reach you unless you’re sitting next to a phone that’s plugged into a wall. This mandates writing letters to family and friends and waiting to receive letters and coveted packages in return. 

This allows campers to focus on the moment and enjoy their surroundings. And, then, when the campers return home, they — for a brief moment —forget their phones entirely … until the texts, calls and other facets of modern life return.

Exercise

My daughter isn’t a sporty kid. She prefers to stay inside and read books or write stories when given the choice. She understands that exercise is important, but she resists it at her current age. 

Camp turns movement into a necessity. Camp means walking everywhere — to the bathrooms, to meals, to evening prayer, to the pool, to the lake, to the barn. 

“Exercise” at camp means swimming, biking, soccer, volleyball, archery, dance, gymnastics, horseback riding, fishing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, basketball, water skiing, you name it. 

And even if a camper tries out a more sedentary activity such as knitting, pottery or painting, the campers must still walk to the activity, which can mean a steep hill climb or, worse yet, a very steep staircase from Cabin Row. But everyone’s doing it, so no one complains. 

Body image

Girls come in all shapes and sizes, especially after the hormonal changes of the tween/teen years begin. My daughter struggles with her changing body and hates wearing T-shirts because she doesn’t like showing off what she feels are not-thin-enough arms. 

At all-girls camps, my daughter can be free of boys. There’s little competition, and there’s no need to dress to impress.

I was happy and relieved to see that, after just two days of camp, T-shirts were all she wore. And she never commented on it again. She was able to be herself and not worry. No one was comparing or teasing or even noticing. That pressure was off for a brief moment in time. 

Discovering talent

My daughter loves to sing. In fact, she’s known for being a good singer at her small school. But she realizes she comes from a small pond, where only a few fish are competing. 

Camp allowed my daughter to test her talents in a new and different venue. She joined the choir — and the musical — and received such positive feedback from the older girls and counselors, that she started the following school year with a renewed motivation to improve her natural musical ability. 

Along with waterskiing, her singing was a highlight of camp — and one she keeps reflecting on.

Homesickness 

We don’t want our kids to experience homesickness for the very first time when they go away to college. Separating is a rite of passage for both the kids and the parents. 

We need to give them time and space away from us — and it’s just as good for us as parents. I have to make it through days when I rush to the mailbox, hoping for a letter from her (and there is none), plus sleepless nights when I’ve seen bad weather moving toward camp. 

Afterward, when we reunite, it feels like a success on all sides — and we’re happier than ever to see each other. A more mature relationship begins to build. Kids suddenly seem a lot older and wiser when they get home from camp, and we can eventually imagine letting them leave the nest with confidence. 

Friendship

My daughter’s gone to camps with friends and without friends. And I can’t say that it’s made any difference in her overall camp experiences. 

Camp is an instant community. And, if all the counselors are doing their job, there’s a sense of community within each and every cabin of kids. When problems arise, they work through them like you would in a family. 

Some make friends for life, others just for the summer. When a two-week session comes to an end, some girls exchange addresses. Others hug and say, “See you next year!” Some girls cry at the Closing Fire. Some cry when they leave the following morning. 

Nature 

It’s wonderful to get your camper back with signs of the natural world — bug bites, miscellaneous scrapes and sun-kissed arms and legs, plus a bag stuffed with damp beach towels and sandy tennis shoes. Some clothes return with stains — blamed on “Jell-O Twister” or “war paint.”

Then come the stories of humidity and heat (and the lack of air-conditioning anywhere), lake leeches and — best of all — late-night thunderstorms pounding on the tin roof of the cabin.

Campers quickly learn to predict the arrival clouds and wind. They notice the mirror-like reflections on the calm lake as well as rays of sunshine, permeating the tall pines in a magical place they call home for a few weeks.

Indeed, camp has transformed the lives of all three of our kids — ages, 13, 11 and 7 — but especially our teenager: Last year, after a four-hour drive, filled with stories of the good, the bad and the ugly of camp, I asked her if she hoped to go back to camp the next summer. 

She told me yes with an all-knowing smirk and asked: Could she sign up for all the water activities next year?

Katie Klingberg lives in Eagan with her husband and three children. She works as a family physician at Apple Valley Medical Clinic and serves as a volunteer camp physician at Camp WeHaKee Camp for Girls in Winter, Wis., for two weeks every year.