Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: Lessons from summer camp

“West Virginia, mountain mama / Take me home, country roads.” The official words of my sleepaway camp song have echoed in my head for the past 10 summers of my life.  As a preteen at my Jewish summer camp, I came of age along with five of my closest friends in a cabin. It was a time in which social media was not yet important, boys didn’t matter and freedom was defined by staying up until 4 a.m. taking weird pictures, listening to rap and eating Sour Patch Kids. All we had was time, real stories and the occasional late night prank.

In the environment of a sleepaway camp, morality and good spirits yield success. It’s a place where kindness matters in everything that you do, and the more you stand up for your values, the more you are rewarded. As a 15-year-old, I participated in something called “teen challenge,” in which the kids who display the most leadership are chosen to be captains. What encompassed leadership was talking to everyone in your unit, making people feel included despite their differences, participating in activities or simply being a good role model.

At camp, simplicity is a virtue — I’ve learned that you don’t need much to be happy, just good people. Each day, your campers learn from every action that you complete. Whether it be how to carry oneself when talking to the opposite gender, teaching them the value of inclusivity by spending time with special needs campers or how to express themselves in conflict, they observe from every move you make.

According to research by sociologist Allison J. Pugh, children are not passive, meaning that they understand social cues as well as hold the ability to offer emotional support without being asked. Secondly, they are not innocent. This means that children developmentally know the difference between good and bad and can understand complex ideas such as race, gender norms or adversity.

The inherent problem is that we sometimes view children as choiceless beings who cannot think for themselves. Of course, children do not hold as much life experience as adults, and wisdom does not come about overnight. But parents are not perfect either. We assume that people are done growing when they reach adulthood, putting pressure on our generation to be perfect. As humans are constantly learning, living and learning again, are we ever really done growing? Our culture teaches kids that adults are always right, but what happens when the kid is morally correct over the adult?

Camp is a magical place because everyone is equal — there are minimal power structures, money is meaningless and society is classless.  Age inequality is barely present, as kids are treated as humans with agency and ideas, and 17-year-old counselors are treated as wise as your own Bubbe and hold the responsibility of a mother’s job.

As a 17-year-old staff member, we learned to put the emotional and physical needs of our campers before our own for the entirety of the summer. It was the first instance in which I was given the platform to influence a life, in which I strived to teach my kids the value of emotional intelligence, loving yourself, equality and patience — just to name a few. In return, I learned from them that life is simple, to always find the small pleasures in the day and that hitting the quan while shoveling warheads into your mouth is never a good idea. Moreover, it gives young adults a sense of agency and a little taste of parenting.

Camp is a place where kids and adolescents develop a sense of self and morality because responsibility and agency are asked of them. As we look for the world to become a better place, we must keep in mind that children can be the agents of change.

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One Comment

  1. Ariel, this is a great article! You have captured so much in such few words…I wish all parents could read and understand what you are saying! Thank you for writing this!!!