I went to Vermont for a week this summer and re-discovered a fantastic lost world of family traditions. A world where people sit down and eat three meals together every day, serving their food from platters and talking with one another throughout the meal. A world where ten-year-olds set the table for dinner and clear it, without complaint. A world where thirteen-year-old boys don’t play video games every night, or watch TV, or sit in front of computers. Instead, they lie in bed and read — comic books, novels, sometimes even grown-up novels. In this world, eleven-year-old girls walk together holding hands as easily as they laugh and talk. No frenzied instant messaging here. Instead, they sing. Every morning, as they make their beds and sweep out their rooms, they sing together. One girl starts a song and the others join in, spontaneously.
Of course, this fantastic world isn’t a lost one. It is summer camp. When I visited a sleep away camp for a week last month, some forty years since I last attended one, I was struck hard by how rarely children engage in these activities anywhere else: not in schools, not in neighborhoods, not in families. Summer camps are one of the last places that kids can learn the so-called “family values” that hard-pressed families no longer have the time to teach.
Doubtless, fun and friends are an important part of a camp experience, and the children I saw were having fun. But fun was not at the core of the campers’ psychological experience. From my viewpoint, three valuable elements dominated the campers’ days. They were living in a multi-generational community, they were following hallowed rituals that were universally respected, and they had a lot of downtime. Ritual surrounded every aspect of the day, from wake-up reveille and tent inspection, to the day’s end with taps and a lullaby. Yes, a lullaby. At 9:30 p.m., we senior staff members stood together singing a version of the Brahms lullaby with camp lyrics to a circle of tents in the woods. The children were asleep by 9:45 p.m., and they slept solidly until 7:30 a.m. when the ritual clanging of the bell woke them again.
Is there anywhere else in the United States where children, ages eight to fifteen, hear a lullaby every night? Is there anywhere where fourteen-year-olds reliably get ten hours of sleep at night? Whatever else our children find at camp, the painful truth is that we often send them away to experience aspects of family life they can’t find at home anymore.
After all, there can’t be too many family dinners when you’re driving your children to the 90-game ice hockey schedule required of thirteen-year-olds on the select ice hockey teams of North Andover, Mass. You can’t have much of an evening ritual when children watch TV or play computer right up to bedtime. And there isn’t much downtime in a family where the children are immersed in music lessons, tutoring, martial arts, town sports, SAT prep courses and more. The only place a child from a high-pressure family can enjoy some peace and quiet, and perhaps a good night’s sleep (with a lullaby), is away from home.
Why does it matter? Because children need it. Children don’t develop because they are pushed, prodded, and pressured to develop for sports teams or “good” colleges. Development is their biological and psychological imperative. It is the job of adults to create environments where children have the time, freedom and safety to grow up at their own pace.
In Vermont I was struck by the fact that summer camp provides something that is in short supply in our fast-paced worlds: respected ritual, time for the generations to get to know one another, and the opportunity to take a nap or read a book after lunch each day. I hope camps like these can maintain their traditions in the face of the frantic, competitive zeitgeist of modern America. I’m worried they will all become specialized (and driven) learning camps, teaching Division 1 sports skills or computer skills. I hope not. I plan to go back next summer and do some singing. I don’t seem to have time for it around my own house.