Shortly after graduating high school, I set off for my first summer at a place dubbed “The Closest Place to Heaven on Earth.” I drove down a gravel road and down a winding hill into a valley full of trees, with details such as a climbing wall poking out of the tree tops. This was to be my home for the next few months. I was volunteering to give up air conditioning, cell phone service, AOL instant messenger (this was pre-facebook, if you remember those days). I was trading these modern conveniences for the land of bug spray, sunscreen, friendship bracelets and hikes. I was going to be a camp counselor. And I loved it. For the next 6 summers I worked as a camp counselor, in both Iowa and New York. I loved being around my peers, being outside, impacting the lives of kids and growing. Little did I know I was picking up skills that would serve me well long after I ate my last s’more and sang my last campfire song.
I’ve written before about how other aspects of my past have affected my parenting. Both being a theatre kid and an RA were things that I did in college. I don’t think I would have pursued either if I hadn’t first built my confidence as a camp counselor.
What type of things did living out in the woods prepare me for? Well…..
First off, it was my first exposure to Overnight Care. Before being a camp counselor, my childcare experience consisted of babysitting gigs. I remember once being scandalized that my babysitter employers once didn’t return until 11pm! That was so late! Well, was I in for a surprise! Having a cabin full of campers gave me first hand with the importance of an evening routine. Nighttime brought a series of challenges: night time is when homesickness. I honed my night time comforting skills over many a chat about home with a camper. I also changed my stealth bed changing skills as I handled the occasional bed wetter. You’ve never really lived until you have changed a campers bed in the middle of the night without waking the other campers. This night time ninja skill would come in handy sneaking out of my own kids’ room after getting them to bed.
After the kids woke up, there was a world of things to do at camp. Fun things like swimming in the pool,going to the climbing wall, riding horses on a trail ride! Doing all of these super fun, yet potentially dangerous situations with a group of 10-12 campers taught me a great lesson in Risk Management. Every year during staff training, our director would give us this incredibly scary talk of all the things that could go wrong at camp (much like well intentioned friends and Facebook strangers share with us daily via social media). We then discussed how it is unrealistic to think that we can eliminate risk. Instead we must manage it, taking necessary precautions as needed without going overboard. That speech still resonates with me as I watch my kids on the playground. Could they fall? Yes, but what they are doing is safe and in a managed environment and my meddling is only going to hold them back from growing and developing. Also, after tackling challenging activities like taking a cabin full of girls canoeing, taking 2 kids to the park (or on a cross country trip) seems manageable.
As a counselor, some of my most cherished memories are messy or imperfect–getting painted from head to toe in tempera paint while wearing a swimsuit, getting soaked in water and mud after running through a creek, herding loose horses in the middle of the night. These experiences remind me that real memories are made in the real moments, not the perfectly planned, carefully crafted ideas we have in our heads. Embrace the messy and follow your kids.
Appreciation of the power of a shower and a nap. Being a camp counselor was my first experience in not being the master of my own schedule. Prior to this, while I had to be at school for designated times and home by curfew, all the time in between was my own. At camp, I was responsible for getting a group of children from activity to activity and meal to meal, then to bed (sound familiar?). We had 2 hours off every day, often at interesting hours. It was during this time, I learned how much self care I could cram into a short amount of time. I became adept at a 5 minute shower (with shaved legs), followed by an email catch up, snack, leaving enough time to take a nap. I now follow a similar pattern (minus the nap…sigh) when I find I have a kid free moment due to their nap or their daily TV time.
Unique set of skills. Being a camp counselor, I have acquired a specific set of skills that might not seem relevant to parental life but have been extremely useful when needed. I have a repertoire of silly songs that can be employed to distract a crying child or evoke a smile or silly moment. I can spot poison ivy at 100 yards (give or take), start a campfire and balance a broom on my chin. You know, things you might never know you need to do….
Knowledge and trust in the power of camp. I cannot wait until my kids are old enough to go camp on their own. Will they get homesick? Maybe. Will I be a blubbering mess dropping them off? Probably. But after spending so many summers witnessing how transformative the experience was for our campers, there is no way I could deny my kids that experience. I think about the love I felt for my campers, many of whom I’m still in contact with and I want that for my kids. I think it is important for them to learn to develop relationships on their own and challenge their comfort zones and I know that camp can do that. I know that it did for me, and because of those challenges, it better prepared me for this journey of parenthood.