Summer 2008

Happy Campers

– Jim Rasenberger

Why do we send children weaned on video games into the woods with knives and kindling? A perplexed father considers the beloved American tradition that is summer camp.

This summer, millions of American children will leave their homes in the cities and suburbs and embark for the nation’s hinterlands. Following the seasonal migratory patterns of summers past, they will travel along crowded interstates and thruways, down winding rural lanes and over dirt roads that lead through piney woods to the shores of quiet lakes. They will arrive, at last, at that peculiar province of American summerhood known as sleepaway camp.

The custom of sending kids off to camp is not exclusively American. The French and the Russians, among others, embed large numbers of their youth in the woods each summer. Even in the United States, the tradition is not all that widely observed. According to the American Camp Association, enrollment in summer camps is about 10 million, a fraction of the nearly 74 million Americans under the age of 18. But it was in America that camps first took root, and it is here they have flourished for nearly 120 summers. If camp attendance never became universal in this country, as some early promoters hoped it would, the lore of camp, at least, is inescapable.

Camps today come in an extraordinary variety, but their taxonomy can be divided into two basic branches. One includes the many species that focus on single pursuits, from old standbys such as “fat camp” and sailing camp to newer venues such as rock ‘n’ roll camp, debate camp, and—pity the child—math camp. Such camps no doubt benefit youngsters and satisfy parents, but what goes on at these places is fairly obvious and requires little in the way of explanation.

My interest is in the other genus of summer camp, referred to in camp literature as “general” or “traditional.” Anyone who has ever attended one—and many who have not—knows the drill: the rustic cabins named after dead Algonquians or furry animals, the reveille bell clanging in the misty chill of morning, the vats of oatmeal steaming in the mess hall. Arrows twang at the archery pit and canoe wakes lap the dock. Children play epic rounds of capture the flag, hike mountains, roast marshmallows, drink bug juice, and learn new skills, such as knife handling and fire building.

It was these last two, the knife handling and the fire building, that started me wondering about camp. My sons had returned from a month at camp looking as if they’d spent their summer scouring chimneys in 19th-century London rather than roughing it in 21st-century Vermont, but under the grime and sunburn they glowed with pride in their newly acquired woodsman skills. They were also proud of the Leatherman they had somehow managed to snag in bosky barter with a fellow camper. This pocket-sized tool combines pliers, screwdrivers, knives, and other assorted gadgets, all of which tuck neatly into its gleaming handles. A step up from the Swiss Army knife, the standard camp tool of my own youth, the Leatherman is a cunning fusion of multiplicity and lethality. There is more than one way to skin a cat, but the Leatherman’s stainless-steel blade is a good place to start.

I was delighted that my sons had returned from the maw of nature with a little mountain man know-how under their belts. But in two city boys who live in a highly flammable wood-frame apartment building and attend a New York City public school, were fire building and knife handling really skills we wished to encourage?

The question occurred to me again last winter, when it was time to send in the first payment for this summer’s four-week, four-figure excursion to the woods of New England. I paused to consider what we were purchasing. Just what were my wife and I giving our children by sending them to camp?

Just what were my wife and I giving our children by sending them to camp?

To some people, summer camp is a fundamental rite of childhood, its virtues manifest in every aspect of camp life. Independent from parental expectations and school-year pressures, liberated from hi-tech paraphernalia and status-defining accessories, children at camp forge true bonds with fellow campers, commune with nature, build self-confidence, and eat s’mores. What’s not to love? Best of all, this children’s paradise makes kids into better human beings.

A few years back, former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner wrote a slim memoir titled Camp (2005). Reflecting on his childhood summers at Keewaydin, a century-old all-boys camp in Vermont, Eisner credited the experience with making him a better man, if not—as we might infer after his acrimonious dismissal from the Magic Kingdom—a better corporate sachem. “Camp taught me a lot of little things, and the experiences accumulated into some big ‘stuff,’ stuff that builds backbone and teaches lessons that will keep popping up in adulthood,” Eisner rhapsodized. “I realized that I had developed my values and knowledge at summer camp.”

Given his reputation at Disney for arrogance and vitriol, Eisner may not be every camp director’s poster boy. But his belief that camp furnishes kids with the right “stuff,” and that this stuff will make them wiser, more decent, more successful, altogether more terrific adults, is one that has been embraced and disseminated by camp directors, parents, and campers since boys’ camps first began appearing on New England lakeshores in the 1880s. A lot of what boys did at camp then will sound familiar to campers now. They swam, canoed, hiked, ran races, and gathered around fires. All of this was deemed fun, but the kind of “wholesome” fun that promised to deliver campers home “physically and morally invigorated,” as Leslie Paris observes in her informative new book, Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp.

Paris’s book is the second history of summer camps to appear in the last few years, following A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960, Abigail A. Van Slyck’s 2006 study of the architecture and culture of camps. Together, these two volumes may seem like an awful lot of scholarly sweat and ink spilled over a subject as simple as a craft-hour lanyard. But, as both convincingly demonstrate, there has really never been anything simple about this business of sending our babes into the woods. On the contrary, the history reveals an intricate skein of assumptions and attitudes Americans have long held about nature, and about the campers who inhabit it.

If camp attendance never became universal in this country, as some early promoters hoped it would, the lore of camp, at least, is inescapable.

The origins of camp go back to a moment when Americans were waking up to a fast-changing landscape. In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed. The Wild West was largely settled, the Indians were subdued, and the once boundless eastern forest was deeply cut. America was no longer a country defined by its wild places and frontier spirit, as it had been for generations, but by its exploding cities, its steel mills and coal mines, its stunning industry and wealth.

The more urbanized America became, the more Americans longed for their vanishing wilderness. Some joined the preservationist John Muir in worshiping nature, the more pristine the better, in reverential reflection. Others threw themselves into nature appreciation with something more like the blood lust of Muir’s friend (and occasional nemesis) Theodore Roosevelt, who exhorted his compatriots to enter the woods (preferably while bearing a gun and hunting license) and pursue the “strenuous life.” Both approaches were essentially romantic, and both were extraordinarily compelling to Americans at the turn of the last century.

Children, especially, were thought to benefit from time spent in nature. This belief was supported by the work of G. Stanley Hall, the preeminent American psychologist of the time, who taught that the milestones of child development were reenactments, or “recapitulations,” of earlier stages in human evolution. Where better to let children explore their naturally savage selves than in the primitive realm of the forest? The popular nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton (who later helped found the American Boy Scouts) took Hall’s advice one step further, encouraging boys to dress up like Indians and perform pagan dances by the campfire. “The Medicine Man should have a drum and be able to sing the Mujje Mukesin,” Seton wrote in his detailed instructions for one such dance. “One or two fellows who can howl like wolves should be sent off to one side, and another that can yell like a lynx or a panther on the other side.”

And hovering in Mother Nature’s shadow was the specter of social Darwinism. As conceived by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer and other 19th-century thinkers, social Darwinism was a half-baked attempt to deploy the theory of evolution in defense of economic hierarchy. The mantra of social Darwinists—“survival of the fittest”—assured prosperous Americans that they deserved their prosperity (since they were demonstrably most fit), but it also stoked anxieties that prosperity was softening their male offspring. Too much comfort and etiquette robbed boys of “vigorous manliness,” Roosevelt worried, and would turn them into a race that “has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues.” Summer camp was the cure. Camp directors pledged to counter “the weakening feminine influences” of home life, as one camp director put it, with a character-building dose of the Great Outdoors.

From the first private boys’ camps of the late 19th century, other camps soon followed. Beginning in the early 20th century, private girls’ camps offered a sanitized and domesticated version of the boys’ camps, emphasizing community and simplicity over competition and privation. Organizational camps, notably those run by the YMCA, were less costly and more inclusive alternatives for middle-class children. Another middle-class camping alternative, the Boy Scouts, was established in England in 1907 by Robert Baden-Powell, but quickly became an all-American institution. The Camp Fire Girls, founded in 1910, provided a female counterpart.

And still more camps—hundreds more, then thousands more—sprang up: Communist camps, socialist camps, Quaker camps, Jewish camps, charity camps for the poor, all found a place in the woods. Each supplied its own mythologies, its own explanation for how nature improved children. For every camp that suggested that nature made youngsters more competitive or more pious, another suggested that it made them more creative or more cooperative or more egalitarian. Elite private boys’ camps recommended a stint in the outdoors to toughen up overly civilized lads; camps for the poor described their environs as a civilizing refuge from the squalor of the urban jungle. Nature was the Leatherman of child development—an all-purpose tool that served as needed.

But if camps’ doctrines varied, their programs were similar. The kids at the camp run by the socialists did more or less what the kids did at the camp run by the social Darwinists. And the conviction that camp mattered, that it was an essential rite of childhood, remained a core shared principle. “The organized summer camp,” Harvard’s former president Charles W. Eliot proclaimed in 1922, “is the most important step in education that America has given the world.”

The more urbanized America became, the more Americans longed for their vanishing wilderness.

Much has changed in the last 120 years. Children spend less time than ever in nature and more time in front of computer screens, televisions, and video games, and attached to cell phones. They are less physically active and softer—nearly one in five children between the ages of six and 19 is overweight. Teddy Roosevelt would be horrified.

Looking back, it is clear that camps were never really a refuge from the outside world. They reflected adult orthodoxies and anxieties from the start. Camp was, and still is, a lifestyle choice before it is anything else. Will it be the coed camp where kids grow their own food in the garden and competition is frowned upon? Or will it be the single-sex, uniform-wearing, sports-oriented camp? Will it be the camp with the website featuring smiling white faces, or the one with a more diverse array of skin tones? Will it be the camp with electrified screened-in cabins and flush toilets, or the one with musty tents, kerosene lamps, and outhouses? We may think we are developing our children’s personalities by sending them to camp, but we are revealing much about our own prejudices, too.

One of camp’s draws is nostalgia: Everything else changes, but camp remains the same. Of course, this isn’t really so. Many of today’s camps are wired to the gills. Even the most rustic and traditional have websites on which they post frequent updates, along with photographs and videos, for parents throughout the summer. Camp directors of the past would have scoffed at these high-tech apron strings.

But some things are more or less as they have always been. Camps still offer a deeper immersion in nature than most American children are likely to experience elsewhere. Camps still promise that this immersion will, in the words of the American Camp Association, “help children develop the healthy emotional and social skills necessary to grow into strong, considerate, competent adults.” Earlier this year, Peg Smith, director of the association, picked up the old refrain. “It’s not about camp,” she told an audience of camp directors, “but about making people better.”

That’s a difficult claim to prove. A child returning from music camp is more adept at playing an instrument or not; a child back from fat camp is 15 pounds lighter or not. But what of the child who returns from plain old sleepaway camp? How do you measure the kind of “stuff” Michael Eisner writes about? The American Camp Association cites a 2005 study in which 5,000 camper families filled out a questionnaire about camp’s effect on their children. Not surprisingly, the responses were generally positive. Seventy percent of parents reported that their child gained self-confidence. Pardon me if I take this study with a grain of salt. Parents’ responses may be a real measure of camp’s success in molding children into better, happier human beings. But they may also be a measure of wishful thinking.

Maybe it’s my own wishful thinking, but I don’t need a study to tell me camp is good for kids. For all my skepticism, for all my suspicion that the “stuff” Eisner celebrates carries a whiff of the stuff deposited from a bull’s back end, I’m still inclined to believe it. My own camp baptism—those teeth-chattering, early-morning polar bear dips in New Hampshire’s Little Squam Lake—may partly explain my faith. I can’t say I loved every moment of camp or even, frankly, remember many moments. (My most vivid recollection is lying in my bunk one August night in 1974 and listening to Richard Nixon resign over the camp’s PA system.)

But camp did leave its mark. I know how to split wood with an ax, light a fire with birch bark, and properly stern a canoe. No matter that I am rarely called upon to demonstrate these skills in Manhattan. It satisfies me to know I possess them. More deeply, my affection for nature, the real pleasure it brings me—even in the city—was fed by the pine forests and cold lakes and wood smoke of my childhood summers. I could have done without the archery and the sing-alongs, but I am convinced that simply living in the woods for a month each summer enriched my life as much as, for example, the books I read. Will my own children be happy campers as adults because they spent a few summers learning to burn and whittle sticks in the woods? I can’t prove it, but damned if some part of me doesn’t buy it.

Leaving aside the intangibles of moral and spiritual well-being, the fact is that camp is short-term fun for kids, does no apparent grave harm, and is therefore sufficiently valuable in its own right without the mumbo jumbo. (Let’s stipulate, though, that some kids find camp exquisite torture. A perfect antidote to Eisner’s warm and fuzzy memoir is Jim Shepard’s dry-eyed short story “Courtesy for Beginners,” about a lonely boy stuck in the summer camp from hell; moments after his arrival, the boy watches a counselor casually kick another camper in the face.)

Perhaps the best argument for summer camp is one I came upon under the heading “Boys Camp” in Appletons’ Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1888. The benefit of sending children away, Appletons’ told readers, is that camp “renders it quite impossible for them, in the exuberance of their youthful spirits to become, even unconsciously, a source of annoyance to their elders.”

One night last winter, around the time camp deposits were due, I came up with my own rationale for summer camp, one not likely to appear on the ACA’s website. I’d woken up worrying about the usual three-in-the-morning concerns, until eventually my thoughts ran to the really scary stuff. Terrorism. Global warming. And then it hit me: My two gung-ho campers would not be heading off into the New England woods this summer merely to bask in whimsical primitivism or engage in youthful shenanigans. They’d be developing—God forbid the worst should happen—a useful post-apocalypse skill set. While other city slickers struggled to survive without a microwave, my boys would be cooking up feasts in the forest.

So that’s why we were sending the kids to that pretty little camp in Vermont? Well, no. But should the end of the world ever come, camp will have been worth every penny.

* * *

Jim Rasenberger is the author of America, 1908 (2007) and High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline (2004). He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and has written for many other publications, including Vanity Fair, American Heritage, and Salon

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons