One steamy night last July, while sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, I got a phone call from the head counselor of my daughter’s camp in the Adirondacks. “Anna’s fine,” he assured me immediately, “but there’s been an incident.” During an overnight canoe trip, he continued, a 15-year-old girl from her cabin had downed a vial of the antidepressant Wellbutrin, left the lean-to where eight other campers were in their sleeping bags, and drowned in the shallow water of the lake. The counselor put my distraught child on the phone, and she chokingly told of a night far worse even than what he had described. Four other girls had also popped some pills: two of them had spent the night hallucinating; the two who were still lucid screamed threats when several girls in the next lean-to, including Anna, wanted to call a counselor for help. Three girls woke at dawn and stumbled upon the corpse facedown on the muddy beach. To cap the experience, the girls spent the next morning making a statement to a state trooper.
The awful irony of these events impressed itself on me soon after, as my husband and I drove the six hours away from the broiling city, through the traffic outside Albany, and into the blissfully cool Adirondack forest. Ever since she had started going to camp four years earlier and bunkmates would ask where she was from, my daughter was greeted with alarm: “Isn’t Brooklyn dangerous?” the mostly suburban kids would ask, or, with the faux sophistication so common to this set today, “Have you ever been shot?” It’s true that, had I been so inclined, I could have walked any of my children six blocks or so from our house and shown them the prostitutes and drug dealers. Anna knew to be on the lookout for the tough public high schoolers who tended to greet the arrival of spring with ritual muggings of private school kids. But with all that, she will remember a fairly conventional bobo childhood: roller-skating and lemonade stands on the sidewalk outside our house; a marathon of after-school activities, including Little League in the park. Yes, she had begun to hear rumors of drinking and sex among her older peers as she approached high school, but I couldn’t help observing that it was only when she was in God’s country with a cabin full of 14-and 15-year-olds from New Jersey and Long Island that she found herself describing to the police a night fit for the tabloids.
Of course, the irony was all the sharper because these events had taken place not simply in God’s country, but at summer camp. People have long imagined camp as an escape from the fumes and vices of the city, and these days that escape holds even more promise. Both city dwellers and suburbanites want to transport their children to a Brigadoon of innocent, pre-MTV childhood, where hiking and canoeing replace instant messaging and channel surfing, where Gooey Gummy Gopher Drops can wash Eminem out of their mouths, and where volleyball—played in camp shorts and T-shirts rather than bikinis—is the preferred coed activity.
The horrific events at my daughter’s camp confirm what many would have guessed: the R-rated culture is so pervasive that even if you take kids to the remote woods and offer them nothing but good clean fun, you can’t count on bringing back old-fashioned childhood. What will come as a surprise, however, is that there are camps that defy the odds and do just that. Using their ability to control the environment in ways nearly impossible for schools, many summer-camp directors build a culture dedicated not only to old-fashioned pleasures but also to a sort of character building that manages to win over even scowling adolescents. Their success should pose a challenge to all those, especially educators, who insist that this generation is too impatient and knowing to value—or even put up with—the basics.
Summer camps are a thoroughly American invention, a product of the pioneering spirit and wilderness-worship so ingrained in the national soul. Though a few late-nineteenth-century educators and naturalists experimented with extended outings in the woods for boys as a way of building sound minds in sound bodies, it was really in the early decades of the twentieth century that camps became a permanent American fixture. Progressive youth advocates of the time worried about the influence of the corrupt city on the young and mourned the loss of frontier and small-town childhood, where children could breathe fresh air and explore the woods and lakes. And what were city kids to do during the two- or three-month school summer vacation designed to allow rural kids to harvest crops and herd cows?
Soon youth organizations like the YMCA, the Boys Club, and the Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as church groups and private individuals, began to buy or lease land in the woods, set up a few tents, hire some staff, and attempt to instill a sturdy integrity into the young by reenacting the life of their pioneering forebears around the campfire. “We believe that vigorous living in the outdoors builds self-reliance, resourcefulness, and physical, mental, and emotional health,” the editors of Camping Magazine, a publication of the American Camping Association, wrote in 1942. From its inception, camp was not just about fun in the woods; it was about building American character.
You’d be forgiven for wondering how this tradition of vigorous summer living could go over with kids used to $4,000 worth of Circuit City equipment in their bedrooms and spring vacations at Disneyworld. And in fact, many camps, faced with such demanding clients, focus less on capturing the spirit of Lewis and Clark than that of Great Adventure. “More camps these days are market-driven rather than mission-driven,” observes Chris Thurber, a New Hampshire psychologist, camp consultant, and author of The Summer Camp Handbook. “It used to be that directors had the attitude that ‘this is the way we do things; if you don’t like it go somewhere else.’ ” Now, says Thurber, you see directors opening up their canteens for candy and chips daily rather than for a once-a-week treat or increasing their custodial staff for campers who don’t want to clean up after meals. Some have installed air conditioning, along with televisions, VCRs, arcade games, and computers with Internet access. Others take their campers on regular sprees to nearby malls. Though most of the more traditional camps strictly limit contact with the outside world, some “market-driven” camps allow kids to chatter away on their cell phones every night.
Aside from instructional swimming, which most places require only for those who would sink like a stone if they fell out of a canoe, many camps have a total elective system, often featuring such activities as go-cart racing, wake-boarding (a waterskiing version of snowboarding), and jumping on trampolines the size of flying saucers. According to Brian Scholl, an official of the American Camping Association, it’s not unheard of to find campers who return home having wet their feet with lake water only three times in seven weeks. Instead of crystal lakes, they swim in heated indoor swimming pools. Instead of mountains, they ascend climbing walls and inflatable icebergs anchored to the bottom of the lake in the safety of the increasingly gentrified campus. Last year, portable canvas seats were all the rage at some camps; girls who didn’t want to dirty their clothes by sitting on the ground unfolded them at every activity. Thurber tells of a camp director who sighed upon being asked about his equestrian program, with its lavish barn and field of horses: “The older girls don’t want to walk up the hill [to the barn], because they’re afraid they’ll get sweaty.”
A lot of the more elite camps catering to kids from the private schools of Manhattan or the public schools of Darien and Bethesda don’t go in for inflatable icebergs, but they do accommodate kids with high achievement on their minds even during the summer months. To compete with the big, new crop of specialized camps that offer high-powered training in everything from basketball to snowboarding, general camps that can afford it are offering more intensive training with professional tennis and soccer coaches. Indian Head in Pennsylvania has a heated pool, an indoor gym, and a golf course—Tiger Woods has made golf the new tennis for the younger generation. Camp Iroquois Springs boasts two lighted roller-hockey arenas, in addition to an amphitheater, a gymnastics center, and an NCAA-size lit and heated pool.
Camp Laurel, a venerable coed Maine camp that, like nearby all-girls Camp Vega, has a figure-skating program that takes advantage of a nearby indoor rink, has recently introduced Stock Exchange Day for older campers: kids use fake money to buy and sell stocks, and they figure out their gains and losses at the end of the day. “Kids used to get Sports Illustrated in the mail,” says Keith Klein, Laurel’s director. “Now they are also getting the Wall Street Journal.” Other camps have seen parents faxing or e-mailing daily stock quotes—a new twist on a green thought in a green shade.
When you ask camp directors to name the biggest change they’ve noticed over the past decade, without exception they point to the number of children on medication. Infirmaries staffed by a lone nurse who spent most of her day reading mystery novels used to be an afterthought for directors; the job description was mostly bandaging skinned knees and calamining poison ivy. Today’s infirmaries are health centers, requiring almost as much staff as the waterfront; harried nurses dispense Ritalin, Adderall, Prozac, Risperdal, Depakote, and so on, as well as asthma and allergy medications. Some estimate that as many as 40 percent of all campers are on some kind of medication; rumor has it that one camp with 500 kids had 280 different meds stocked in its health center. As complicated as the logistics are, a bigger problem is the parent who decides to give her kids a “vacation” from Ritalin without telling camp administrators, leaving them with a new child inexplicably bouncing off the knotty-pine walls at 2 AM.
A more vexing challenge from twenty-first-century-style childhood, camp directors say, are the children who look on the peppy, sing-along spirit of camp as so, like, over. “Kids are more challenging to work with, more anti-authority,” says George Stein, director of the esteemed Echo Lake in the Adirondacks. “They might walk away from an adult when they’re talking to them, curse them out, say ‘Screw this, I don’t feel like doing this,’ or ‘I don’t understand why I have to do something I don’t want to do.’ ” Most camps end up sending a difficult child or two home every year. In a few instances, directors then face parents, veterans of the special-education system, who demand the camp “accommodate” their child. “The schools manage,” they say. “You can too.”
Equally vexing is the Britneyzation of the teen and preteen set. Most of the early camps were single sex, but in the last 20 years a growing number have become coed, just in time to welcome kids who have left behind panty raids and shy first kisses for thongs and oral sex. Norman Friedman, dean of Gene Ezersky Camp Safety College, says that the problem intensified about ten years ago. “Now,” he says, “many kids are looking to become sexually involved at camp.”
Bob Ditter, a Massachusetts psychologist who often consults with camps, has noticed an especially big change among girls. Girls arrive at camp sporting T-shirts with messages like BOY SCOUTING or GOOD GIRLS ARE BAD GIRLS THAT NEVER GET CAUGHT. At one reputable New York State camp this summer, a group of 14- and 15-year-old girls vamped naked in front of a cabinmate’s video camera; the panicked counselor quickly called parents to warn them before they stumbled across soft-porn pictures of their daughters on the Internet. Ditter says he was called in recently when several girls were caught performing oral sex on boys on the bus after a camp trip. “A lot of girls, especially those from Southern California and the Northeast, watch and identify with Sex and the City,” Ditter says. “They see themselves as young, rich, and attractive. They feel powerful, daring each other to give blow jobs. . . . They think sex is cool.”
The new generation of babes in the woods has led a lot of camps to take a warier attitude toward their charges. There was a time that coed camps could tolerate a certain amount of young romance without fear they would become Dawson’s Creek. Not today. “The threshold for nonsense has to be lower in a coed camp,” Camp Laurel director Keith Klein explains. “Fifteen years ago, ‘No PDA [public displays of affection]’ was a joke. We looked the other way if kids were holding hands. Now we stop it.” These efforts may sound like overkill, but when mischief means oral sex rather than spin the bottle, or handing out uppers rather than shorting sheets, adults responsible for large groups of kids have little choice but to clamp down on the sort of experimentation and high spirits once winked at. Tightening the directors’ resolve is the knowledge that they are dealing with ambivalent parents, who, even if they say they want them to lighten up, would think nothing of suing them when they do.
The more junior Britney-wannabes present a special set of problems. Most camp owners say that tweens, especially girls between ten and 12, are their toughest sell. Desperate to leave the ranks of dorky children and establish their teen credentials, girls this age are often just plain mean. At camp, they taunt their bunkmates who go along with the program. “You actually like archery?” they jeer. “It’s sooo boring.” “I’m going to wear my Steve Madden shoes to the social; you mean you don’t have Steve Maddens?” Good camps don’t sit still for this kind of stuff; they aggressively train their counselors to spot even subtle bullying. “Did I just see you give her the look I think you did?” is the example Echo Lake director George Stein gives. “We’re always watching for cruelty,” says Scott Ralls, director of Southwoods, a coed camp in the Adirondacks. “We have bunk meetings regularly, and we tell those kind of kids, ‘If this is what you need to do, you’re going home.’ But they want to be here, and they stop.”
Knowing that cool, cliquishness, cruelty, and sex are intricately bound up in the tween mind, Ralls tells kids to leave their Britney gear home. Although Southwoods has no uniform, spaghetti straps, belly shirts, low-slung pants, and two-piece bathing suits are all verboten. So are perfume, cosmetics, and hair dryers. Determined to desexualize a generation that went directly from Sesame Street to Friends, Ralls instructs counselors not to discuss their own boyfriends and girlfriends or what they did on a day off and to avoid any “Is that your boyfriend?” teasing.
Camp owners are scrupulously discreet when discussing the parents who pay the bills (up to $8,000 for seven weeks), but the consultants they must so often hire make clear that mothers and fathers are another big obstacle to keeping the old camp ethic alive. Many parents see no reason for Michael and Megan to endure the simple life. As one mother told me without embarrassment, she had looked for a camp with an indoor and outdoor swimming pool for her eight-year-old because “my son would never swim in a lake.” Packages from anxious parents flood mailrooms, many of them containing contraband like candy and soda. (One camp squelched the practice by overnight-mailing the offending packages back home, embarrassing both parent and child.) Parents send CDs and Discmen—and, at least once, a small TV.
Some parents undermine a camp’s tougher rules whenever their own kids break them. They tell camp directors that their son didn’t know beer was alcohol. According to Bob Ditter, when informed that their seventh-grade daughters had taken off their bikini tops to do a strip dance for some boys during a bus trip, the parents asked: “What’s the big deal?” At my daughter’s camp, parents tried to excuse the two girls who had popped a single Wellbutrin by pointing out that the prescription says to take one pill a day. As one of my daughter’s cabinmates explained to her friends when arguing against telling the counselors about the drug orgy going on in the next lean-to: “They’re just experimenting. Anyway, every family has different values.”
For all this, it would be a mistake to conclude that the new world of middle-class childhood, with its Ritalin, thongs, chat rooms and ‘tude, where you set your own bedtimes and have meals your way, could not take to the rituals of 8 AM bunk inspections and morning swims in chilly lakes. In truth, many “mission-driven” camps—unlike my daughter’s—manage to transform, at least temporarily, the Eminem generation into children who eagerly sing, “I love the mountains, I love the daffodils” at a sunset campfire.
The better camps manage to create something many of today’s children have never known: a safe, richly personalized, stable community. At these camps, people have a recognizable identity in a way they often don’t in large, impersonal schools; the better camp directors know each camper by name, and, instead of disappearing behind closed office doors, the various adults—the cook, the waterfront director, the sailing instructor—are lively presences at flagpole meetings and campfires. The better camps that dot the woods of Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Maine are deeply traditional places. They maintain their Indian names and minimalist accommodations; many have spartan bathrooms with showers in a separate building. Directors speak proudly of rituals that haven’t changed in the 60 or 90 years their camps have been in operation.
At the better summer camps, the retro style and nostalgic traditions are no affectation—they help to create a time-honored order where adults are adults and kids are kids. This does not mean simply that directors get their campers to play tetherball rather than watch the E! channel. It means that they try to help kids to grow up in the time-honored sense of the term.
In many suburban and city homes today, as well as in many schools, you find adults who believe they are doing their job when they empower the young to pick their own way through a chaotic, self-indulgent, celebrity- and designer-crazed culture. Good camp directors do something very different. They try to create a value-rich, coherent counterculture, one that can inspire children to imagine their way into a better self. A surprising number of directors consciously dedicate themselves to creating an environment that reinforces traditional democratic virtues: personal responsibility, independence, mutual respect, friendship, and cheerfulness, nourished by the beauty and immensity of nature that surrounds them. Even more amazing: in such an environment, kids actually listen to their better angels.
Camp Wawenock, an all-girls camp on Sebago Lake in Maine, is a fine example of the genre. Wawenock makes every effort to keep things much as they were when the camp started in 1910. Campers sport the same blue uniform (with an orange kerchief for special occasions) that Wawenock girls wore 90 years ago, though bloomers have given way to shorts. The cabins have no electricity. The girls swim in the lake, sail, play tennis, and do arts and crafts; you will never hear the whine of go-carts, and no giant plastic icebergs will spoil your view of the Images Rocks above the lake, where vespers takes place on Sunday evening. (It seems to be a general rule of summer camp that the farther north, the fewer the frills—and this is a point of pride for Maine directors: “No camp in this state has a swimming pool,” one of them sniffed.) Like many camps, Wawenock is filled with music; campers awake in the morning to reveille, turn in at night to taps, and sing from a camp songbook after breakfast and dinner.
This old-fashioned simplicity reflects the camp’s values, which, according to director June Gray, who has been at Wawenock since 1956, “haven’t changed in 93 years.” Growing up at Gray’s camp means learning to adopt “the Wawenock spirit,” whose ten components include cheerfulness, honesty, and love of nature. At the end of the summer, each girl receives a letter saying, “We thank you for your Wawenock spirit” and listing the specific qualities she’s successfully exhibited. “Camp is one of the most special places in my life,” 17-year-old Jessie Cochran, a five-year Wawenock veteran, told me wistfully. “It promotes kindness; I always thought my counselors walked on water.” It comes as no surprise that Jessie is planning to return next summer as a junior counselor—90 percent of the camp’s counselors are ex-campers. Says Julia Hoffman, 19, who has been at Wawenock as a camper or a counselor for ten summers: “I still feel like it’s family.”
Unlike principals, whose idea of school culture is all too often a legalistic 25-page discipline code, camp directors create highly personal communal values that come across as completely authentic to kids. Jay Jacobs, the owner of the relatively lavish Timber Lake in upstate New York and Tyler Hill in Pennsylvania, is a case in point. He resolved “to affirm values, not just to let them happen.” “I felt there was a lack of character education at home and in the schools,” he explains. “Kids were materialistic and overly competitive. They were seeing examples of road rage and airplane rage. They were watching Spike Lee shouting terrible stuff to the referees at Knicks’ games.” Jacobs introduced what he calls a “Starfish” program; each letter refers to a different virtue—sportsmanship, tolerance, appreciation, respect, and so on—that he wants his campers to aspire toward. At a weekly campfire, he tells a story that exemplifies one of the Starfish values and recognizes people who have demonstrated it that week. Noticing a troubling increase in a sense of entitlement, Jacobs has asked his staff to push kids to applaud visiting performers more enthusiastically and to greet and thank the janitorial staff.
The approach that good camps take to competition helps make clear how different their character-building efforts are from the values that prevail at campers’ schools and often even their homes. “A lot of our message is inconsistent with everything else in kids’ lives,” explains director George Stein of Echo Lake. The kids who go to the better camps are often locked in a nonstop K–12 competition with their peers. Some of them may have fallen into that habit from observing soccer dads bawling out the coach—or worse, their own child—after a lost game, but sports are really the least of it. These are kids who compete on every level—who has the biggest house, the best vacations, the most Champion sweatshirts or Kate Spade bags. As they get older, they compete about who has the highest SAT scores, the best grade-point average, the most impressive extracurriculars—and ultimately who got into Harvard, on the way to a competitive, high-paid career just like Dad’s or Mom’s.
Little wonder that a lot of directors share Jacobs’s concern that kids are becoming overly egotistical and cutthroat. But they also know that sports contests can channel young people’s natural competitiveness in character-building directions. They have seen the pride of a child who has exercised self-discipline to achieve his personal best. And they also know that sports can teach kids fundamental life lessons—how to strive within the structure of a team, how to be aggressive and mannerly at the same time, and how to submit cheerfully to life’s small disappointments: “Be gracious in both victory and defeat,” as the Starfish Code of Good Sportsmanship says.
So camps offer a wide variety of activities where even the clumsy can find a niche: directors say that the sorts of kids who are the last to be chosen for the baseball or soccer team are often crackerjack archers and riflemen. And counselors teach sportsmanship as well as sports. During inter-camp sports events, Jacobs and his staff encourage campers to cheer their friends, but they allow no one to taunt the opposing team. “Jay always tells us to have class,” repeats 17-year-old Lauren Tillem, a veteran Timber Lake camper who spent the past summer as a counselor. “At tournaments, we all began noticing how rude and obnoxious the other camps were. We weren’t.”
Ultimately, what good camps do is create an alternative vision of what it means to grow up. Rejecting the idea commonly held by kids—and little countered by the adults in their lives—that to reach maturity is to have sex, get high on mind-altering substances, or own an Acura and a wardrobe of designer clothes, savvy directors ask their teens to show their mettle by taking on real challenges and meaningful responsibilities, including helping to care for those weaker and needier than they are. At Camp Laurel, older campers train for much of the summer for a tough cross-lake swim. They become captains of color war and camp sing. “Where else can a 15-year-old lead a group of 120 kids like they do in color war?” asks the camp’s director, Keith Klein. At Wawenock, 16-year-olds run camp teams and organize the campfires.
No less important, teenagers who are longtime campers remember what it was like to be in the younger cabins and to look up to the captain of the color-war team or the best basketball player. “Those kids were my role models,” says Timber Lake camper Jonathan Cohen, 15. “Now I get to be a role model for younger kids.” Says Wawenock camper Jessie Cochran: “The older girls really have a sense of being camp leaders and a feeling of responsibility for the younger campers.” In fact, it is the teenage campers as much as the counselors who cut through the cool that pollutes a successful camp culture and who model the cheerful enthusiasm that one thinks of as camp spirit. “You don’t want to ruin it for the younger kids,” Cochran explains. “You learn very fast not to say, ‘This stinks.’ ”
Most of us think of adolescence in its party-on, Ferris Bueller guise, but camps remind us that teenagers are deeply appreciative of moral clarity and of adults who demand the best of them. Jay Jacobs was amazed to hear that his 16-year-old boy campers decided, without any prompting from him, to break their basketball huddles with the cheer “Starfish!” This same moral clarity from demanding but concerned adults creates an atmosphere of trust that nurtures fond memories and deep, often lifelong, friendships. “I talk to my camp friends all the time—even when I’m home,” says Timber Lake camper Jonathan Cohen. “Every year camp gets better.” Some campers say they are trying to go to college with some of their camp friends. And girls, once they get through their tween eye-rolling stage, are even more grateful campers. Tripp Lake, a Maine girls’ camp, is still attracting 16-year-olds; theirs is the first cabin to fill up for the following season. As Southwoods’ Scott Ralls sums up: “Every summer, upper senior girls come and thank us for being allowed to be girls and not young women, to come and play soccer.”
Is it a surprise that it is still possible to take kids who yawn through Caribbean cruises and 72 channels and seduce them with the special magic of campfires, the crisp discipline of morning flag raisings, and the pensive notes of evening taps? It shouldn’t be. Kids can be as fine as a culture asks them to be. There are plenty of people who sense that. Jeff Konigsberg, the owner-director of Takajo, a Maine boys’ camp that attracts kids from Scarsdale and Great Neck, keeps a bugler on staff, who plays a traditional “tattoo” 15 minutes before lights-out every night. Do the boys, busy throwing pillows or playing with their Gameboys, even notice it? “You can hear a pin drop,” Konigsberg says. Adds Wawenock’s Jessie Cochran: “At camp, you feel like you’re in a place that doesn’t change. Time doesn’t reach there.”
Campers—and their parents—should thank their lucky stars for that.