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Sleep-Away Camp is My Blind Spot

By marinka |

I don’t let my kids go to sleep-away camp.

They’ve asked.

I’ve said no.

They asked why.

I explained that it’s too expensive, that I want to spend the summer with them, that the thought of them being away for weeks is selfishly unbearable to me, and all those reasons are true.

But they’re not the whole reason that I won’t send my kids to sleep-away camp.

I never sent my kids to sleep-away camp because I had an awful, terrible, no-good, very bad experience there when I was ten years old.

My parents and I had just arrived to New York from the Soviet Union, it was May and my parents needed to find a place for me, fast. They had things to do, jobs to get, an apartment to rent, a life to start, and having a ten year old underfoot wasn’t doing anyone any favors. Besides, they heard that sleep away camp was the way to go in America, and when in Rome do like the Romans and all that.

And so off I went. It was a camp in upstate New York, in a place that I can imagine being described as serene and wholesome and it was all those things. Except I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

To this day, when I am in my mid-40s, I have yet to experience such loneliness and alienation that I felt there. I’d been in American a little under six weeks by the time that I was shipped off to camp, and I didn’t know American customs. I didn’t know that you are not supposed to wear the same t-shirt day-after-day, even though it was clean, even though it had Donny and Marie on it, smiling to show that they were friendly on it.

The other kids didn’t so much tease me as avoided me. They treated me as though I were completely foreign, which in their defense, I was. I spoke limited English, smiled absolutely never (Russians don’t smile without a good reason, unlike Americans who, like Donny and Marie, smiled often, and unprompted.) To make matters more awkward, I immediately got poison ivy which didn’t enhance my already freckled complexion.

I was lonely. I was miserable. I wanted to go home.
When I did come home after two weeks, I vowed never to go back. This wasn’t good news for my parents who already paid for another two week stint at the end of the summer. But I would not budge. I knew what misery was and I didn’t want any more of it.

And that feeling hardened. It hardened into a strong bias that I didn’t want my children to go to summer camp where they would be lonely and away from me. I made a decision not to send my children to sleep-away camp.

As I write these words I can hear the criticism. “It’s not your childhood, it’s theirs” and “Their experiences can’t possibly be the same as yours” and “You’re denying your children a wonderful rite of passage.”

I can’t argue with any of that.

I know that because of my own issues I have deprived my children of an experience that so many children enjoy every summer. I was not able to overcome my summer camp misery to let them partake in it. That is my parenting blind spot and I admit to it freely.

But I’m not going to be able to push past it.

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About marinka



Marinka is a wife and mother of two living in Manhattan's West Village. On her personal site Motherhood in NYC, she blogs about her life in New York City, her kids and family, current events, and the art and science of blogging.

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12 thoughts on “Sleep-Away Camp is My Blind Spot

  1. SelfishMom says:

    I don’t know what to say. You’ve argued against your reasoning well, and yet you won’t budge. It makes zero sense to me.

  2. marinka says:

    @Selfish Mom– I’ve been fortunate in that the economy has been so terrible that I haven’t had to face the possibility of sending them to sleep-away camp. But even if I was suddenly bathing in cash, I don’t think I’d be able to do it.

  3. Thea says:

    Sleep-away camp is not compulsory. Kids can – and do – have lively, interesting, fun and formative summer experiences without it. Wanting to protect your kids from something you found to be abject misery? I’ve heard bigger flaws.

  4. Fairly Odd Mother says:

    I don’t think anyone has ever died from non-exposure to sleep-away camp. Throw some marshmallows in the microwave and have city-s’mores.

    I did one weekend in 4H camp in my tweens and it was. . .meh. My best friend was with me (thank goodness) but I would’ve been so lonely and sad without her there. I found the cliques to be incredibly well-established, and the quiet, shy, and unadventurous (me) were not of the popular crew. Though I did wear my John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John tee shirt to try to fit in with the cool kids.

    I’m not sure I’ll ever send my kids either. If they want to hide in the woods and kiss boys, they’ll have to do it while they hide from me.

  5. Fairly Odd Mother says:

    And, to add—I’d rather read a thousand posts like this than one more “Oh My God, when do my kids go back to school, can I send them to sleep away camp until school starts, I can’t wait until September” comment, especially when summer (for many of us) just started.

  6. Lisa says:

    I never went to sleep away camp. I did day camp for a few years and started to despise it so much that I begged to stop going. My parents said ok with the caveat that I limit my “I’m bored” proclamations. My dad, a teacher home for the summer, kept me and my two big brothers constantly busy with great things around town. I much preferred being home. Now that I have my own child and one on the way I’ve thought about sleep away camp for the future. My own misery in day camp gives me pause. Plus it feels so far and scary. I understanding your feelings.

  7. goddess says:

    I think you’re doing fine without it. I never went, and knowing myself and my temperament when I was a kid, I think I’d have been pretty bored and lonesome. But my kids wanted to go when they were8 and 10. I ended up picking the 8 yr old son up on the 5th day- he was miserable and it was counter-productive in my opinion. The daughter LOVED it. She’s gone back excitedly each year since and looks forward to it all year long. But the son won’t go. And that’s all fine. I do some fun things with him from home-side.
    Funny thing is, the daughter is a little on the prissy side and the son is a total outdoors boy. Go figure.

  8. Tiffany says:

    You don’t have to explain yourself here. I went to girl scout camp for a week about that age, cried myself to sleep every night and was thrown from a horse the first day. (As a plus sized kid you get the adult horse that isn’t used to awkward plus sized kids riding them). By day two it was complete survival mode and making friends wasn’t even on my radar. With this history I desperately tried to convince my friend’s 7 year old that she was too young to do 5 days at sleep away camp and would be very, very sad. (Auntie of the year here). Of course she went and had a blast but I still have no plans to even let my son know there is such a thing as sleep away camps outside of his going to Nana’s house. (she’s always cold and doesn’t run the a/c so it can feel like camping over there)

  9. Tragic Sandwich says:

    I went to sleepaway camp for two weeks in two separate summers. Same camp, two very different experiences. But it’s not compulsory. All of the other summers had their ups and downs, too. I don’t know whether we’ll send Baguette when she’s old enough, but it’s nothing to feel guilty about.

  10. Bee says:

    Short of recommending therapy, I am not sure what to say. This post is very sad. I am so sorry that this happened to yo

  11. Bee says:

    Sorry, I am on a tablet and my post got cut off. I am so sorry that this happened to you, and I do understand the fear that your children might endure some of that same pain. I have the same fear. However, since your kids are begging for a camp experience, would you be open to exploring day camps in your area? They would be right nearby, you could go there immediately and get them if anything bad were to happen, and you would still see them every day. Your kids are crying out for enrichment over the summer, and that is a positive thing. You can still give them that opportunity with a day camp for a week or two and still retain control of the situation and of your summer.

  12. bee says:

    Thanks for messaging me back. Well, since your kids are getting a day camp experience, I don’t think they’re missing out on much. Day camp is often the best of both worlds, especially for younger kids.

    How do you feel about them spending nights away under other circumstances? Do they attend sleepovers? Will they be allowed to go on overnight class trips or band/chorus/sports trips to other cities that require them to spend a few days overnight? Will they be allowed to live in the dorms when they go to college?

    If these overnights are okay with you and camp is the only thing that gets your guard up, I don’t think you’re taking your own experiences and projecting them onto your kids in a way that is really negatively impacting their lives. But there are a few things to keep in mind:

    * Age is a really big factor here. A six year old at an overnight camp might not be ready to handle challenges while away from home, but a thirteen year old might be perfectly equipped. It also depends on the child. If you can look past your experiences and still feel your children are not ready, they’re probably not. You know them best.

    * You can use your experience at camp to teach your children how (not!) to respond to someone who is different to themselves.

    * Your attitude as an adult toward your experience with discrimination and xenophobia will impact your children’s resilience, willingness to stand up for themselves vs. retreating, and whether they learn to approach new situations with confidence rather than fear.

    * You can talk with your children about what happened to you at camp and use the experience to teach them what their options are should they ever experience maltreatment, whether at camp, school, or anywhere else. Lay out your situation in an age-appropriate way and ask them, “What do you think this little girl should do? Who can she talk to? What are some things she can try? Why is this happening to her? Is it her fault?” etc. Your kids might surprise you with some great ideas and a deeper understanding of discrimination, prejudice, and bullying than you expect.

    It sounds to me like you still have a lot of (justifiable!) anger toward the way you were treated when you first came to the United States. I would feel that way, too, were I in your position. Have you tried talking about this with others who share your cultural background or with a counselor who specializes in multicultural issues? Everyone failed you as a little girl when you came to the U.S. and went to that camp. You were scared and hurting and no one protected you or reached out to you, and that was unfair and wrong. That little girl inside you is still hurting. Ultimately, you’re the only one who can reach out to her and make it okay. I hope you will.

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