Viewpoint: Summer Camp Is Overrated

There are other ways for children to build character than pricey sleepaway camps

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We’re midway through summer, and parent blog posts gushing over the character-building qualities of summer camp are now as ubiquitous as cat pictures on Pinterest. “My daughter went away to camp and changed,” intoned John Dickerson on Slate. “How do I catch up?” The implication is that, at camp and on their own, children grow in ways they couldn’t have at home. But is that more a symptom of our overparenting than proof of inherent benefits of camp itself?

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Summer camp began more than 150 years ago as an initiative by educational reformists who saw it as an outdoorsy, character-building addition to formal education. And research does suggest that camp can give kids a psychological and emotional boost. A 2007 study in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that children who attended at least one week of day camp or sleepaway camp saw positive changes in self-esteem, independence, leadership, friendship skills, social comfort, peer relationships, sense of adventure and exploration, environmental awareness and (mostly for religious camps) spirituality. Some of the benefits of camp, according to both kids and parents, not only persisted at least six months after camp — they increased, said one of the study’s authors, Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., a camp enthusiast and clinical psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Camp kids, he’s observed, “manage their schedules better, are less prone to procrastinate, and integrate into new social groups more easily.” They’re also, he says, more open to trying new things.

(MORE: Do Children Bring Happiness — or Misery?)

That’s all good news for the 11 million, or approximately 1 out of 5, kids who’ll go to camp this summer. But not all kids are happy campers. And many parents don’t send their children to camp. Sometimes it’s simply not part of their family’s experience or culture, says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA). The ACA has conducted focus groups, for instance, that showed that Latino families were especially averse to the notion of sending their kids to the care of others.

And cost is certainly a barrier for many. The average bill for an ACA-accredited camp is about $304 a week for day camps, and $690 a week for overnight camps. Costs can be significantly higher, however, depending on the region. (Some overnight camps can cost $2,000 or more a week.) The 2007 study (the data for which was collected in the early 2000s) collected information on parents’ income. It found that 31% of the participating camp families had an income between $51,000 and $100,000, and 31% had an income more than $100,000. That means that kids on the lower end of the economic spectrum may be getting the short end of the tent pole.

In her book Unequal Childhoods, Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, followed 12 families to see how parents’ incomes and attitudes affected their child rearing. She found a major philosophical difference: middle-class parents thought their children’s latent abilities could be cultivated, in part, through organized activities. Working-class families, on the other hand, tended to think a child’s identity and abilities would unfold on their own. She calls these two approaches “concerted cultivation” and “natural growth.”

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“There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches,” says Lareau. In the end, Lareau found, however, that middle-class kids ended up better able to navigate college and the workplace because they’d already been forced to navigate worlds outside their own home. Lareau says noncamp kids can, however, have opportunities to learn about the world and their place in it without going to camp — free museum days and other cultural activities, trips to see relatives, volunteer work and summer jobs can give stay-at-homes many of the things they would get from camp.

Lareau relates the story of an acquaintance who was literally losing sleep over her decision to have her son spend three weeks with his cousins rather than send him to camp. “She felt it might deprive her son of some kind of notch on his belt for academic performance,” she says. Lareau told her he’d be fine.