When I was a kid — I can hear you groaning from here — camp was something you did for the summer. Sometimes a kid would go for half the summer or leave a bit before the end, but it was called “summer camp” and lasted the better part of the season between one school year ending and another beginning.
I loved camp more as a counselor than a camper. As a kid, I spent most of my summers at a sleepaway camp, Scatico, 100 miles north of Manhattan. I may have been an institution, but only because I was the odd kid out, the one racking up “most improved” trophies because I didn’t deserve the real ones (except for my prowess at Nature). In the “can’t make this stuff up” department, I once managed to score a trip to the infirmary when passing out in right field for fear that I would actually have to catch a fly ball. Yes, I was dubbed the Poet Laureate of Scatico at the tender age of seven thanks in part to my contributions to their esteemed newsletter (file it under “old habits die hard”), but I was not one of those kids who was cut out for camp. or at least any camp whose schedule revolved around swimming and team sports.
I was, however, cut out to be a counselor, and I spent eight summers as a counselor at Beth El Day Camp in New Rochelle, NY. My time at Beth El felt far more like my formative years, and so much of what I learned about management and leadership stem from experiences and observations there; my three years as head counselor probably count as the toughest paying job I ever had, and it’s hardly surprising that I look back on that so fondly.
In the decades between when I ‘retired’ as head counselor and when I started sending my daughter to camp, something changed. I can’t say how much this is due to my move to Manhattan or a broader trend that shifted over time, but for my daughter’s peer set, ‘summer camp’ turned into ‘week camps.’ What’s now all too common — and by far the norm in my daughter’s social circle — is for kids to go to a camp for one or two weeks, and then do something else. A kid’s summer could entail going to five or more different camps. It often feels like packing in a whole curriculum, such as mixing in camps for sports, gymnastics, a foreign language, theater, and science. It’s like a tasting menu with each dish served at a different restaurant and no main course.
There are quite a few benefits to this approach. Parents with enough disposable income to pick and choose camps may be more inclined to spend some weeks traveling and then intersperse camps around that. We’re a more global society, and I’m in one of the world’s most diverse big cities, so many of my daughter’s friends are spending part of the summer visiting grandparents in another country, or at least another state. The flexibility is a treat too, allowing parents to explore which programs best suit their children.
For my family, we chose to commit to four straight weeks at a single gymnastics camp, leaving the rest of the summer unstructured and allowing time for our travels before and after. While our daughter looked forward to relaxing after a wonderful camp experience, she wound up asking for more time at that camp, and we were able to get her back for another week.
Even with my daughter attending just one camp, and doing so mostly in consecutive weeks, something was lost. It proved much harder for relationships to develop in two important ways.
One challenge was developing relationships among children. Every week, the mix of campers differed. These pre-schoolers had no way of assessing who would be in their group the following week. That hindered how well they could form friendships, and how well they could even recall which kids were in their groups.
The second challenge was developing relationships between caretakers and counselors. As a doting dad, I took my kid to camp nearly every day, so I was able to introduce myself to the counselors (or coaches) and check in with them. I also thanked those I got to know, mentioning to them more than once that I was a counselor for years and appreciated how demanding their jobs were. There were a couple of counselors who appreciated my involvement and enjoyed giving me periodic updates about my daughter.
I’m lucky to have developed a rapport with certain staff, but I can’t say I developed relationships. It’s such a contrast with my experience as a counselor. To this day, I can look back on my time as a camp counselor in the ’90s and tell you quite a bit about the personalities of dozens of the parents I got to know over the years. Those parents I dealt with as a rule wanted to be involved, and they weren’t shy about asserting their needs. I might understand them much better now that I’m in their shoes, but at least back then, I could get a sense of who they were and what their individual needs were.
An aside: my favorite moment of building relationships with parents came the summer of my first year as head counselor. As the group leader, my name went out on all the paperwork that parents received before camp started, and it’s a name that startled at least some of the parents. Three weeks into that summer, one of the parents picking up her kid said to me on behalf of herself and some other parents, “David, we love you, but we were scared to death to send our kids here.” I was 18, and it was a wonderful moment for me where I developed a new degree of empathy. I realized that if I had a kid one day, even growing up with my name, I would be concerned about sending him or her to a class or group led by a Jeff Dahmer or a Charlie Manson. I learned to be even more thankful for the trust those parents put in me.
As for week camps, I’m left wondering how much the tradeoff is worth it. It feels like yet another instance of society — or at least this specific society in which I’m living — prioritizing convenience over commitment. Picking a camp is now akin to swiping right or left based on the preference du jour. It’s fractional ownership of a camp season, or it’s camp-on-demand. I’m sure there’s some startup trying to disrupt summer camp and call it CAAS — “camp as a service.”
I’m optimistic that this is a pendulum that will swing back the other way. Even with my mixed feelings toward sleepaway camp, I got to know it, and I got to know scores of campers and counselors so well. Anyone who spent time on the boy’s side in the late ’80s will probably have at least some vague recollection of Berky, and Berky probably remembers them too. I might still be jealous that they could get through nine innings without passing out in the outfield, but I’ll try to get over it. Also, I probably owe them some Easy Cheese.
The convenience may still be worth it for some. At least when choosing week camps, know what the tradeoff is. Then you can see if you want to find another approach, or go all in and buy as many shares of that CAAS startup as you can.
This column was originally published in the newsletter. While I share the introductory column here, other updates such as jobs, events, and commentary on news are exclusively available to subscribers. Sign up now to make sure you receive it.