Should you send your child to camp?

An anxious parent reports the results of a month-long investigation — when to send a child to camp, how to choose the best camp for him, and some surprising facts about camps and camp life

Dorothy Sangster May 24 1958

Should you send your child to camp?

An anxious parent reports the results of a month-long investigation — when to send a child to camp, how to choose the best camp for him, and some surprising facts about camps and camp life

Dorothy Sangster May 24 1958

Should you send your child to camp?

An anxious parent reports the results of a month-long investigation — when to send a child to camp, how to choose the best camp for him, and some surprising facts about camps and camp life

Dorothy Sangster

On June 28, the Saturday after school ends, thousands of excited boys and girls lugging battered suitcases and bulging duffel bags will converge on railway stations and bus depots all across Canada and head for the woods, in a happy bedlam of farewell shouts. This annual trek, which will continue all summer, leaving fathers broke, houses curiously silent, and mothers with sore fingers from sewing on hundreds of name tapes, is called Going to Camp.

What do half a million Canadian youngsters get out of going to camp? Do they come back healthier, happier and wiser?

As the mother of two young boys who have never been to camp, I have often wondered what my children were missing. This year I determined to find out. Now that I've spent a month interviewing fifteen camp directors, reading a mass of books and pamphlets, listening to social workers, and comparing notes with parents and youngsters who have been to camp, I realize that there are no simple answers to most of my questions. Too many intangibles cloud the view.

My most shocking discovery was that anywhere in Canada anybody can start a summer camp for children, with no questions asked.

As Professor John Farina, of the University of Toronto, recently said in an address to Ontario camp directors, “Somebody sprung from Kingston penitentiary tomorrow can engage somebody to front for him and be in business, provided he's stashed away his loot.”

The only requirement for running a summer camp for children is a license from the department of public health of the province the camp is in. The department is concerned solely with sanitary conditions and fire hazard. When it comes to the care, supervision or safety of children at camp, or the personal morals of camp directors and their staffs, apparently nobody is interested. A mother I know sent her boy away to camp for the first time a couple of years ago and heard a few months later that the camp director had been arrested on a morals charge. She also heard that he had twice before been dismissed from youth groups for similar tendencies — something that would surely have been revealed by even the most routine preliminary check, before he was again placed in charge of children.

F. M. Van Wagner, of Montreal, president of the Canadian Camping Association, a voluntary organization to which most, but not all, Canadian camps belong, says, “There are no regulations affecting camps anywhere in Canada, other than those of the provincial departments of health,” and Mrs. Agnes Mutchler, president of the Quebec Camping Association, adds: “Some camps are getting away with murder.” A camp where many children have taken sick in past summers because of inadequate meals is still functioning this year. So is a second camp, described by an authority in the camping field as “inadequately staffed, poorly supervised, and with a record of too many drownings over the years.” Improperly marked swimming areas, inadequate medical supervision, dangerous second-rate boats and beach equipment, and immature counselors in charge of canoe trips, all endanger the lives of young campers, yet many camps do nothing to correct these hazards.

Something else that surprised me was my discovery that many camps censor a child's letters home. Several camp directors gave me their reasons for censorship. “Here’s what often happens,” the director of a large girls’ camp explained. “A new girl comes to camp, and it rains for two days and she writes home that everything’s soaking wet and she hates her cabin mates and there was horrible old fish for dinner and she wants them to come and take her home. The next day the sun comes out and there’s roast beef for dinner and the girls in her cabin are her bosom friends for life. But what about her mother and father back home, worrying themselves sick over her letter?” She says she has talked frankly to parents about censorship, and they’ve told her they’d rather not know about every miserable little moment in their child’s camp life, not, at least, until it’s over. If anything serious happens they expect the camp director to get in touch with them immediately.

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Should you send your child to camp?

A camp director who’s against censorship, and the majority 1 talked with fell into this category, holds that parents have a right to know the truth about their children.

He says, "At camp, a boy is up and about for fourteen hours a day. For thirteen and a half hours he’s busy and happy; then, after supper, he sits down and writes a letter home. In that half hour he is lonesome and he says so. Naturally his parents are disturbed.”

This man advises parents to wait a few days, see what the next letter says, and then get in touch with the camp if they feel it’s still necessary. If the homesickness persists the child may have to go home, but there’s a feeling that this is hardest on the child himself, who can’t help but realize that he has failed in a relationship that other children have succeeded in.

Camp directors claim that some children write wildly imaginative letters home.

“I just thought I’d tell you I have measles,” one boy wrote his mother. A frantic telephone call to camp established the fact that everybody was fine and healthy, including her son.

“I can’t write you a letter because my finger is infected,” a little girl penciled briefly on a postcard home. Since she was enrolled at a camp that censors mail, the camp nurse was able to add her own postscript: “Sue had a sliver in her finger. It is not infected. She is playing baseball right now.”

Many camp directors believe that if any letters ought to be censored, they are the ones coming into camp from thoughtless parents, which aggravate a child’s natural loneliness at being away from home.

One mother hit the jackpot with this letter: “We are at your grandfather’s cottage for a whole week. He has a.beautiful new outboard motor. Too bad you aren't here to enjoy it with your cousins. We had chicken for dinner, and your favorite dessert, apple pie. Are you having fun, John darling?”

It is suggested that parents who w'ant their children to be happy at camp should write one or two cheerful letters a week, omitting all mention of lonesome pets and happy times at home. “Lucky you, to be out in the country where it’s cool. Especially since all your friends are away too,” is a good starter.

I've concluded there’s no way for me to tell in advance whether my two young sons will like camp, hate it, or simply tolerate it. Some children are what camp directors fondly recognize as “born campers,” eager to get unpacked and on the go. and friendly and co-operative in everything that comes up. Other children stare resentfully at their surroundings and reluctantly unpack their bags. Camp directors say, "You can tell in your bones that this is their first and last time at camp.”

But here a lot of intangibles enter the picture.

For one thing, a boy who was a good camper last year may be a bad camper this year, for any number of reasons. Perhaps he liked a counselor last year who didn't return this year, perhaps he didn't pass at school and is still worrying about it. perhaps he’s recently acquired a dog and misses him at camp. Perhaps his best friend stayed home this summer, or perhaps his mother is having a new baby and he feels rejected.

The second year of a child’s camp life is often crucial. Camp directors explain that the first year a youngster comes to camp he learns to swim and to paddle a canoe. He makes new friends and it's the first time he's ever been away from home. The next year he expects to find the same thrills. Naturally, they aren’t there. But the third year he’s over the hump, and from here on he’s apt to be an enthusiastic camper.

Who should stay home?

Some children are misfits at camp for personal and painful reasons. One boy I heard of was so allergic to fish that his head swelled up and he broke out in an ugly rash whenever it was served for dinner. Another boy was allergic to birch trees. A girl with surgical scars on the inside of her legs found it a real ordeal to undress and go swimming with the other children. Bcdwetters have a rough time from those who share their cabins, even if their counselors try to protect them, and some counselors don't. Some boys are entirely ignorant of sports like baseball and can't stand the taunts of the other children.

Psychologists say there are children who don’t benefit, and may actually be harmed, by going to camp. Among them, they list:

The child who is too young to be part of a group all the time. Some fiveand six-year-olds require time to be by themselves occasionally.

^ The insecure child. A youngster needs to feel completely secure at home before he can free himself for an away-fromhome experience.

^ The child who has severe difficulty in abiding by reasonable limits and controls. Regardless of good supervision at camp, he may get into trouble or danger. v* The disturbed child who is sent to camp to get over being disturbed.

Dr. Mary Northway, of the Institute of Child Study in Toronto, says of this latter type, “Camp can be the worst thing in the world for him. He's being thrown into a situation where the necessity to adjust is all-important, and he’s bound to fail. He may retreat still further, or he may develop bizarre behavior that puzzles everybody around him.

The child who is above all an individual may not enjoy camp much. One lad with an IQ bordering on genius is still remembered vividly at a certain camp where he turned up one summer, spent most of his time rigging up a working telephone from his cabin to other cabins, then went home and never returned. His camp director says, ‘The world has been g-.eatly advanced by individuals, but they're often just not the camping type and the sooner their parents recognize it the better. If your child has been to a good camp and doesn't want to go back, don't force him. But I don’t think you should take no for an answer if he's never been to camp anti doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

What /.v a child missing by not going to camp? Is a camp better than a summer cottage, and, if so, why is it?

Psychologists like Dr. Northway feel that camp is a wonderful experience for most children. They point out that at camp a child has a close relationship with children his own age. He has a chance to compare his values and try out his social skills. He’s an important part of a children’s world at camp, not—as he sometimes is at home—a minor part of an adult world. The child at camp learns new skills, new independence, new beauty in the world of nature. Life at camp is orderly and busy. Counselors initiate boys and girls in new kinds of fun, new adventures. The food tastes better spiced by hunger and healthy exercise. Memories take root and sometimes last a lifetime—of Circus Day, the Pirate Invasion, Peter Pan Night, Regatta Day, the Children’s Opera, the Bickering campfires, the marshmallow roasts, the songs, the laughter, the quiet prayers at the edge of the wilderness, the unknown trails to be followed, the nights spent under the stars.

“A good camp keeps a child busy and happy and gives him something to remember all his life,” a camp director told me. “Most important, it’s the first step away from home and a valuable part of growing up.”

Psychologists and camp directors use the phrase “a good camp” easily. But choosing one, I discovered for myself, is a problem. Technically, camps are divided into two categories: profit camps, and nonprofit camps — camps run by churches (denominational or interdenominational), by agencies like the YMCA, YMHA and Neighborhood Workers, by service clubs like Kiwanis and B'nai B’rith, and by organizations like Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, many of which are privately endowed or partially subsidized. Good nonprofit camps have three things to recommend them: the organizations running them are interested in children on a year-round basis; they usually have an enrollment of children from every income group; and the price is right—seldom more than sixty dollars for an average two-week camp period, and often less.

Parents living in British Columbia, the prairies, or the Atlantic provinces, where there are relatively few private camps, will likely find their decision involves only a choice between the nearest Scout, Guide, church or Y camp. In many parts of Canada, camps have recently been organized for handicapped children. Parents of youngsters with special needs will probably ask themselves merely. "Shall we send Johnny to camp or keep him at home under our own care?”

Choosing a private camp is a different story. What started out thirty years ago with half a dozen enterprising physicalculture instructors taking a few older boys tenting in the woods has mushroomed into a highly competitive, milliondollar business with a strong educational slant and plenty of frills. There are about four hundred private camps in Canada today, most of them in Ontario and Quebec.

A parent can go mad turning the pages of the 1958 Ontario camp directory and mentally fitting a child into a big camp (two hundred or more children), a small camp (fifty or fewer children), or an inbetween camp (about a hundred children); into an all-boy camp, an all-girl camp or a co-ed camp aimed at providing "healthy boy-girl relationships in a natural setting;" into a junior camp designed to meet the special needs of the child from three to eight, or a ranch camp where the emphasis is on horses instead of swimming. Each camp quotes a different price (anywhere from twentyfive dollars a week to six hundred dollars a summer) and every camp director has his own personal opinions on how a camp should be run.

The first point of disagreement comes when you ask, "How old should a child be to go to camp?”

Answers range all the way from three to eight years old.

"Younger than eight, a boy doesn't fit into our program too readily,” explains one camp director. "We expect a boy to make his own bed, hold his paddle correctly, learn to swim and remember the parts of a boat. If we have to help him all the time we’re taking valuable attention away from the older boys who can get the most out of camp. So eight is our minimum age.”

The director of a large co-ed camp takes children as young as five. He says, "We're big, but our activities are decentralized and the smaller children follow their own program with their own counselors. This makes it handy for parents to visit all their camping children the same visiting day, and the younger ones are saved from loneliness by the presence of their older brothers and sisters.”

The controversy is partly simplified, partly complicated, by the junior camp, a fairly new thing, designed as a steppingstone to senior camp. Most junior camps have slower-paced activities, a blander diet, more counselors per child, and “family atmosphere” to make the young child feel secure.

Even in the field of junior camps there are differences of opinion. Some camps have what's called “a continuing program." requiring campers to stay at least a month, while other camps operate on a day-to-day basis. The director of a continuing - program camp explains: "Anything less than a month is useless. Why, it takes a week for a small child to find his way to the dining room when th£ bell rings for dinner! It takes a month to learn to row a boat, swim a bit, make something in handicraft class.” But the director of a day-to-day camp says, “It's better that a child should come to camp for two weeks and like it than for a month and not want to come back. Sometimes what could have been a good camping experience is turned into a bad one because a child stayed too long.”

Once you’ve definitely decided to send a child to camp and have equipped yourself with three or four names of suitable-sounding ones, how do you choose among them?

“If you were a parent trying to choose a camp for your child, what would von do?” I asked fifteen camp directors.

Without exception, they specified three steps they'd take:

1. Meet each camp director and have a good talk.

2. Ask for a list of parents whose children had gone to camp recently and talk to them about it.

3. If possible, visit the camp in action the year before sending the child.

“I never fail to be astounded by parents who are willing to send their children off for the whole summer with somebody they've never met and barely heard of,” the director of an old and established girls’ camp said. "I'd make sure I met the camp director if I had to travel two hundred miles to do it. I'd ask myself: What's this woman’s motivation in running a camp for girls? Naturally, she wants to make money out of it, but that shouldn't be all. I'd want to be sure she had a real interest in girls.” "Motivation is immensely important,” agreed the leader of a boys' camp. "The difference between a good camp and a mediocre camp is the quality of its staff. I'd be interested in how my child's camp director chooses his counselors. Does he simply look for bright young men on the strength of their accomplishments in swimming or archery or dramatics, or does he look further than that for qualities like warmth and sympathy and a genuine liking for kids?” Hearing over and over again how important good leadership is, I kept wondering why provincial governments haven't inaugurated some sort of meaningful licensing of camp directors and staffs. Mrs. Eanswythe Flynn, executive secretary of the Ontario Camping Association. told me. "As things stand now, all you have to do to start a camp is live in a farmhouse and open the front door. In they'll stream.”

Some people, out to make a fast buck, have done just that. Last summer a parent visited a camp that had issued a

glowing brochure of its varied activities, and found her young son engaged in farm labor. The irresponsibility of some camp directors is amazing. A few years ago. an American director brought a large group of children to northern Ontario on a camping trip, ran out of funds, and went back to the U. S.. leaving the children stranded. A camp director told me he had dismissed an unsatisfactory counselor a few years ago and was shocked shortly after to hear that the same young man was starting a camp of his own. Still later, he heard of his arrest on a charge of collecting money under false pretenses.

Some people who enter the camping field in all honesty, liking children and meaning well, are inexperienced, unskilled and unaware of the tremendous responsibility of caring for other people's youngsters for weeks and sometimes months. L.ast summer, after several complaints had been received from parents concerning a camp run by a well-known charitable organization, inspectors from one provincial department of health visited the camp site and found what they termed “far too many children” lodged in one two-story farmhouse with a single staircase leading downstairs. In case of fire, the children would have been trapped upstairs and probably burned. By nightfall the young campers, much against their will, had all been packed into buses and sent home. Yet the organization which had set out to give city kids a country holiday had acted from the best of motives. They were just inexperienced in a field where inexperience can be fatal.

In an attempt to protect children and their parents from this kind of inexperience, six provincial camping associations —in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario. Quebec and Nova Scotia —have devised their own set of minimum standards concerning health and sanitation, medical supervision, emergency transportation, swimming and boating safety and leadership requirements. The Ontario Camping Association has also set up a code of ethics for camp directors. However, they admit it has no teeth since membership in their organization is voluntary and not all camps choose to belong. Even for members the code is more of a gentlemen's agreement than a set of rules.

Once a parent is satisfied with the leadership at a camp, he can proceed to talk with other parents whose children have been there. Here, what’s one man’s meat may be another man’s poison. One father I talked with was irritated because his children came home from a small sectarian church camp singing endless hymns and playing Bible Baseball — a table game with moves based on Biblical characters. Another father might have been delighted.

Some parents send their children to Scout and Guide camp because they want them to cook their own meals, sleep in tents or under the stars, and look for adventure and self-reliance in a primitive setting. Other parents shudder at the thought. “Just because they’re at camp is no reason they have to be uncomfortable,” they insist. The camp they choose has sailboats and horses and indoor flush toilets and an expensive chef to turn out fancy desserts.

Happily, most good camps are somewhere in the middle.

However, some idealistic directors of private camps feel there’s a long way to go before they can run the kind of camp they’d like to run. They believe the day may come when private camps will have to be endowed, identified possibly with a university and staffed by students who would get credits for counselling.

In the meantime, we parents will just have to choose the best camp we can find at a price we can pay and hope it will all turn out for the best.

As a camp director told me at his spring reunion, standing in the middle of a milling throng of noisy boys, “Listen, you can grow up normal without ever going to camp.”

Overhearing him, one young sprout added his own tagline.

"Sure you can, but you'll miss an awful lot of fun!” ^