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David Bouchier: Take Me Home

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My parents never sent me to summer camp. They believed that families should go on vacation together, no matter how painful the experience was for all concerned. But a lot of things have changed since my childhood. In particular, Dr. Benjamin Spock dreamed up the idea that children should not be repressed by arbitrary discipline, and must be allowed to express themselves. Since then, the family vacation has declined, and the summer camp industry has boomed.

American parents send more children to more summer camps than parents anywhere else in the world.  A web search for Summer Camp turns up thousands of advertisements for camps in faraway places with strange-sounding names, often vaguely Native American, like Wampum, Totem, Pemmican, Blackjack or Roulette.

Faraway is important. An essential part of the summer camp mystique is to encourage your offspring to see remote and exotic places without strip malls. The Poconos and the Catskills seem especially popular with East Coast parents, although some choose to send their little ones all the way to California, or even Hawaii, for the full faraway camp experience.

The word "camp," like the words "limousine" and "salad," has largely lost its original meaning. There won't be much crude tent camping in California or anywhere else, except in a few euphemistically named "adventure camps." Today's young campers don't sleep in fragile tents that collapse in the rain in the middle of the night. They don't suffer voracious bugs, rock-hard camp beds, or horrible messes of food cooked in filthy cans on kerosene stoves. These so-called camps are more like country hotels, with solid walls and roofs, hot and cold running water, real food, and real bathrooms: in short they are havens of decadence and luxury. There is a distinct danger that kids might actually enjoy themselves in these places, instead of learning the old camping virtues of stoicism and endurance.

Most summer camps are promoted as pure fun, a kind of secular childhood paradise, with baseball, canoeing, horse riding, gymnastics, tennis, and even singing. There are camps where boys can be boys, others where girls can be girls, and there are coed camps where nature can take its course.

The summer camp phenomenon is explained or justified with an eclectic mixture of ideas from Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of course Lord Baden-Powell the father of scouting. The basic assumption seems to be that nature is good, and that a child exposed to nature will somehow become a better person. So a beautiful natural site is obligatory. Freezing cold lakes are very popular, and mountains are advertised just about everywhere except on Long Island.

Yes, the kids may suffer a bit. But the parents are the true heroes and heroines of the summer camp industry. Parents pay the whopping bills, parents must grit their teeth and send their precious offspring alone into the wilderness, armed only with a truckload of sports equipment, electronic devices, and designer sports wear. Parents have to sit and wait for the phone to ring in an empty house, and bravely listen to the sounds of silence while they study the advertisements for next year's summer camp.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.