Kids Go to Overnight Camp and Gradually the Tears Are Only Yours

Lovely Washington Post essay by Michael Gerson on summertime, camp, growing up, letting go, etc., etc. — with one alarming factoid: Can it be true that some Girl Scout camps FORBID climbing trees? Talk about the ultimate Free-Range metaphor.

And to think I was just eating Girl Scout cookies for breakfast. (Kids, do as I SAY, not as I eat!) — Lenore

39 Responses

  1. I went to Girl Scout camp once as a kid… though I wasn’t a girl scout. I just remember that if we got caught running we had to hug a tree. I think I hugged a lot of trees that summer.

  2. My girls went to GS camp this year.

    They weren’t allowed to run unless they were doing an official “running activity.”

  3. Good grief, TessaS!

    My daughter wanted to go to camp this summer, but told me too late to do anything about it. But the plan is for her to go next summer–thinking ahead this time.

  4. Picked up your blog a while back and have been enjoying it. Raised two kids (now 20 and 23) and dealt with many of these issues, and pushed the envelope with a number of them–with no dire effects, albeit a few raised eyebrows from other parents.

    Re the tree climbing restrictions, though, I can understand why a camp would want to limit, or prohibit it. As a former tree climber, I can attest that the delightful practice is indeed dangerous, especially if one doesn’t tree climb regularly and ‘get a feel for it’.

    And a fall from a tree ain’t fun, as many of us learned on our ways to the ER to get a limb set and casted.

  5. Although individual circumstances vary, and this is a distraction from your main point, at least sometimes a prohibition against climbing trees might be a legitimate way to protect *the trees*. If you’re in a big forest, no problem, but if there are only a handful of convenient trees and they get climbed by legions of kids all summer, it might be bad for them.

  6. Good to know about GS camp. I won’t be sending my girls. What’s the point of camp if you aren’t allowed to run around and have fun?

    I didn’t sign my kids up for any activities this summer (or camps). I’d rather them just stay home where I know they will spend 8 hours a day out in the sun riding their bikes and playing with their friends.

  7. Beautiful essay, Lenore – thanks for posting the link! It’s nice to read an essay that advocates the necessity of allowing children to develop their own independence and acknowledges the reality that the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise a person that DOESN’T need you to survive. That phrase at the end about going from being the sun to a distant star in a child’s universe is so poignant.

    I had friends who joined Girl Scouts when I was a kid. I wanted to join too, thinking it was like Boy Scouts, until I found out that it wasn’t so much learning how to pitch a tent or fish or use a Swiss Army knife as much as it was learning to sew, cook, or do arts and crafts – all things that I learned from my mom anyway, so why would I want to do that? That was back in the 80s though, so hopefully Girl Scouts activities have become less centered around “traditional gender activities.” Although that bit about not being allowed to climb trees doesn’t bode well – what next, banning rope swings over the lake? Does anyone know if Boy Scouts camps have similar restrictions?

    At least my dad took the time to teach me how to use a Swiss Army knife. He was, however, sadly unable to teach me how to properly gut a fish. He had a hard enough time baiting a hook with live worms.

  8. Huh.

    Reading that essay sounded like this family forced kids to go to camp even when they didn’t want to. I don’t believe in “forced” independence – or at least, I’m not going to practice it on my kids (this is how my family of origin did things, and I resent it). However I have found giving my kids an environment of freedom means they seek out their own independence, on their terms, and beautifully!

    I do agree with the essayist about “parental irrelevance”. I feel that way sometimes already – and my kids are only 5 and 7! My kids get the independence part at home where they are allowed almost total free-range activities, including not being put in school. But when my son has called from Grandma’s wanting to come home (this has happened a handful of times out of MANY overnighters) I definitely send my husband to pick him up. I have found more success letting my kids tell me what they’re ready for, then picking arbitrary goals based on my convenience or worse, emotional baggage from my own childhood.

    My daughter is going away to her first weekly camp in a few days. If she handles it anything like the two overnighters she’s had, there will be no tears. For any of us! Just extra snuggles at home for her brother, who is too young to go.

  9. Wow. I went to a camp for 4 summers, for kids with allergies and asthma, and aside from dietary cautions, we were biking, doing archery, swimming, long hikes, caving, mountain climing with all the attendant tackle, kayaking. It was fantastic.

    I particularily loved the mountain climbing.

    Not one of us “medically challenged” ever needed to go to an ER, there was a nurse and doctor on staff too.

    Oh, and you couldn’t call home. It only encouraged homesickness, they found. ( I believe only in a few extreme cases campers boo hoo’d til they left early, but most were happy to get out from under the constant fretting of parents.)

  10. We went skinny dipping at my GS camp! Of course, rumor has it that it was a former nudist colony.

  11. Hmm. Maybe we’ll just go on a trip to the grandparent’s house instead. 10 acres. Trees, creek, cliff to climb down. Horses and cows and chickens next door. Deer come through every morning. And we’re allowed to run as much as we want.

  12. My daughter went to Girl Scout camp last summer (she’s been in GS for years, but had always gone to a YMCA summer camp). The child who LOVES summer camp…who marks the days off on her calendar until it’s time to go…who starts packing a week in advance…HATED. EVERY. MINUTE.

    She said they (a cabin of ages 7-10) weren’t allowed to do anything spontaneous. Line up and walk to ___; now line up and walk to ____. And yes, no running at all, unless it was a “running game”. I asked whether there were any running games; she said no.

    Needless to say, this summer she was back at YMCA camp for the week. And loved it. She said that after dark one evening, the cabin counselors took their group on a walk deep into the woods, the girls with their flashlights. This was the highlight of her week, because it was “scary and fun and spooky! and we saw an armadillo! and one of the counselors had to chop a snake in half! with a machete! and we looked at its guts! OMG mom it was awesome!” I’m thinking the GS camp would have permitted no such thing. Unauthorized exposure to nature? Bah!

    @ MFA Grad: They still do crafts, but the focus (in our troop, anyway) is more on community service and outdoor skills.

  13. MFA: “until I found out that it wasn’t so much learning how to pitch a tent or fish or use a Swiss Army knife as much as it was learning to sew, cook, or do arts and crafts”

    I was also a Girl Scout in the 80s and we never did sewing & cooking! We did lots of camping activities. My little brother wanted to be a Girl Scout because the Boy Scouts don’t get to go camping without a parent until after 5th grade (when they are no longer Tiger Cubs.) I was camping without parents the summer after Kindergarten, troop camping since first grade, and teaching others how to sail by third grade.

    I think the activities of a young Girl Scout troop have more to do with the things the leader is confident in (Older girls should be planning their own activities!) Maybe you just had leaders that were scared of bugs? I am glad I got lucky to gain many self sufficiency tools to become independent through girl scouts.

    I worked with a girl scout camp ranger a few years ago where we set up a weekend camp for Brownies & Juniors to learn how to be Miss Fix-it. They learned basic plumbing, how to change a lightbulb, how to check the oil on a car, use basic tools (even power tools!) The girls loved it, the ranger loved teaching them to be more independent – I am so glad I found this site to get even more ideas on what children are often not allowed to experience at home and how we can engage them in expanding their confidence..

  14. MFA Grad: “Does anyone know if Boy Scouts camps have similar restrictions?”

    They didn’t the one year I went to Boy Scout camp (this one, to be specific: ). Places that let you shoot guns and bows, and encourage you to swim the quarter-mile or so across the lake, tend not to worry about what can happen when you run.

  15. I’ve worked at 6 different Girl Scout camps and spent many years at camp as a camper.

    Every camp I have worked at has had restrictions on running – we have fields that are great for running and games and activities – and we have trails in the woods, down hills, that are rocky and rooty and not conducive to running. As one of the people responsible for safety and health at camp, I certainly don’t want to be cleaning out 150+ skinned knees regularly! 🙂 And I can attest that I have a bunch of trees that aren’t safe to climb at camp – and plenty of parents that would be very upset about that.

    We work to allow our campers to gain independence (we have middle school girls who have never used a knife to cut up vegetables) and setting limits that keep them safe, follow the ACA accreditation standards, follow Leave No Trace ethics, meet Girl Scout safety rules and keep parents happy. It’s worth it though to see a girl leave camp having tried things she’s never been exposed too – swimming in the deep end, lighting a match, taking responsibility for her own belongings, walking with a buddy down to the office (first time an adult hasn’t accompanied some of them!), and so much more.

    I also lead three Girl Scout troops. My girls (4th through 12th grade) have tried many different things in GS. They have learned to pitch tents, camped in the snow, learned to downhill ski, learned to ice skate, learned to build fires with matches and flint, gained jacknife and compass skills, use GPSrs, canoe, kayak, gone indoor sky diving and more. (We also learned to make lots of types of candy this year, completed a variety of service projects, and did some crafts – it’s all about what the girls want to do!)

    Camp is a great place to allow kids to learn independence and skills they might not get elsewhere – but it does have rules in place to keep everyone safe and happy as they have their camp experience.

  16. I went to GS camp as a child and hated it… slept in cabins, ate in a cafeteria, did lots of crafts, only 1 (short) hike, swam in a pool instead of lake… none of the outdoor activities I associate with “camping”.

    I cringed the other day when my 4 year old asked about GS camp (her brother was in Cub Scout camp that week). However, I was very happy after talking with another mom with a girl in GS camp at our local campgrounds. They do archery, they run, they play with fire (ok, not play but they do learn to start a fire using just one match and without a match), they shoot BB guns, they canoe, etc. Not sure about tree climbing, but they have a high ropes course complete with zipline. 🙂

    Not all GS camps are created equal – thank god!

  17. I dropped my kids off at camp yesterday and was struggling with this same issue. Resident camp is for adolescents, IMO, the one place above all others that is “their place.” They make all the decisions including when to shower, unfortunately. I absolutely love to see to see the new dimension this adds to them each summer. The self-confidence, the self-awareness, the knowledge that they CAN and WILL make it without me is priceless and fills me with pride. However, it also fills me with tears because I get a glimpse of that dorm room, then the apartment and the first child, etc. I’m not ready for all that. But like my kids, I learn every year that I WILL survive without them too. That’s the way it goes. Friday will be a bittersweet day as I pick them up, especially because Gab went on a 6-day canoeing trip on the Stillwater Resevoir instead of staying at the camp which will add yet another dimension to her independence. Lord, please sustain me 🙂

  18. I have to tell you about my GS camp experience. I was 12 and signed up for a camp program that would take us to a state park for half the week to hike and bike the trails. The first day I flipped my bike and broke my wrist. The two college age counselors were absolutely sure that it was only sprained and decided not to take me to a hospital because rules said they’d have to take all the girls. So a week later my parents picked me up and thought it looked a whole lot worse than they did. It had to be re-broken.

    That’s not their fault for letting us bike down hill, just for being incompetent.

  19. What a great article. I have been trying to make this case with friends and family for years. We raise our children to leave and we fade in their lives. I have never carried the argument to that conclusion but it is true. My own father’s memory as certainly fade in my mind to fondness but do i want my children’s memory of me to do the same.

    If I develop my own life all is fine. If I find my self worth in my children we all suffer.

  20. @ a Girl Scout & nenner –

    Glad to hear that my experience didn’t translate across the board for other former GS back in the 80s! I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a lot to do with the troop and/or troop leader. The couple of times I was invited to go along to activities as a guest, it just didn’t seem like they did much in the outdoors. I think GS is a great opportunity for girls to learn a wide variety of skills and how to contribute to a community, and it’s good to hear that it’s not just about “girls’ stuff” – Brownies learning about basic plumbing, changing oil in cars & power tools?? That’s AWESOME.

  21. It’s not just GS camp that has restrictions on climbing. At my daughter’s daycamp, which she has attended for the last 4 years, this year someone broke their arm falling off the monkey bars, and so no-one is allowed on the monkey bars at all anymore. My daughter is understandably mad! I blame the parents though, not the camp, they just don’t want to get sued.

    On the topic of Girl Scouts, last year my daughter’s GS brownie troop did an overnight program at a local science museum. And I was one of the only parents who did not accompany my daughter. Apparently for most parents 9 years old is not old enough to spend a night away from parents under supervision of GS troop leaders. (My daughter said I was absolutely not allowed to come, otherwise she would not go; fortunately, because I had no intention of sleeping on the floor with a hundred preteen girls.)

  22. My 12 year old daughter completed her 5th year of GS camp this summer. She absolutely loves it. She did a nine day program this year. She swam, hiked, kayaked, canoed, had several overnights in the woods, shucked and cooked fresh oysters, and wind boarded. She came home happy and tan and covered in bug bites.

    All three of my kids also go a Camp Fire day camp. It’s fabulous and a highlight of the summer for all of us (I’m a full time volunteer for the week.) I don’t think the kids ever stop running that week, unless it’s to do another activity.

  23. my son went to a preschool gymnastics day camp for a week this summer, where they weren’t allowed to run around in the gym because they “might bump heads.” I understand safety needs to be a priority in these situations, and that it can be hard to keep preschoolers on task if they’re all running around every which way. But it would be nice if they at least gave them some organized running activities. Such a big open space, seems like a waste to make the kids stand around so much waiting for their turn on the balance beam or whatever.

  24. Girl Scout camp was horrible for me. I went in the mid 90’s. No running, climbing, et cetra. Someone stole and ate my cereal and they didn’t have anything to feed me at all. For dinner we had grilled chicken pieces put in a bag of crushed Dorritos. We didn’t learn how to build a fire. They did want us to climb a rope, which I couldn’t do. I did get called “too chubby” by the group leader. They woke us up at 5 am one day to march us a mile in the dark so we could take group showers with no hot water. Had to wear our pajamas there and back. Just Awful.

  25. If anyone is looking for an awesome camp in NY, I suggest you check out Beaver Camp in Lowville. It is a camp that is spent outdoors doing all kids of “dangerous” activities. They have challenge courses, a big tree you climb to go on zipline, a water trampoline (the child sits on the end of this big poofy sac and the counselors jump on it to propel the kid into the water, they have a video of it. It’s hilarious.), they swim, canoe, kayak, sail all with just a lifeguard supervising, no counselors in the boat, they even have a rock climbing wall. It’s awesome. The counselors are mostly college kids that come from all around the world. Girls get to do all the same things as the boys. My daughter this week is canoeing on Stillwater Resevoir with 6 other kids. They will canoe all day and camp on the various islands. They will learn to cook their own food over a fire and how to set up/take down a camp. Check out their website.

  26. MFA Grad, my 9yo is at overnight boy scout camp this week as a Webelo (the 2 years between Cubs Scouts and Boy Scouts). I’ll report back on what he was allowed to do, but I know lots of hiking and swimming in the lake were on the agenda.

    They are allowed to shoot BB guns and bows & arrows at day camp, which allows boys entering 1st grade and up. He’s done day camp the past few years, and BB’s are definitely his favorite activity. We’ll see what he does at the overnight camp 🙂

  27. No son of mine will ever be in the boy scouts.

  28. No son of mine will ever be in the boy scouts.

    Fortunately, there are plenty of camps that are unaffiliated with scouting organizations altogether, and there are also alternative scouting organizations.

    Camp Fire USA (formerly Campfire Girls, back before it was co-ed) purports to be all-inclusive, I don’t know how true that is right now.

    Like all things, it probably depends on the individual camp and the individual troop. Those people worried about girl scouts (or whatever) not having enough activities of this kind, or having too many activities of that kind? The choice of activities probably has a lot to do with the particular families in the group, and the adults who help run it. You can search around for one that suits your kids’ interests, or – if you’re willing – set one up on your own.

  29. Perhaps you missed my earlier posts about the camps my children attend. I’m a seasoned camp fire volunteer and my daughter attends girl scout camp. I wasn’t asking for advice, merely stating my opinion. I don’t personally care what the individul boy scout troops claim they believe. The main organization that they are accountable is not something I am willing to support in any way. My older son did 2 years of Y guides with his Dad, but he lost interest because he didn’t have any good friends within the group. One of my friends is actually going to lead a new camp fire group in the fall, and he’ll get to be with all his old preschool friends (the one’s he goes to camp fire camp with every summer). He’s going in to 4th grade.

  30. Linda, occasionally, when people comment in reply to other comments, they aren’t just giving advice to the person they’re replying to (and if they are, that’s not really offensive – I’m not arguing with your position on boy scout camps, I quite *agree* with it, I just didn’t see the point to bobblehead about it). They’re doing so because they figure other people may have the same concerns and – hey, here’s a nice way to segue into the topic!

    You may not need the advice, but in the time we’ve spent having this conversation 10 other people may have gotten something useful there… most likely the fact that Boy Scouts aren’t the only scouting organization for boys in the US. (You have no idea how many people don’t realize that!).

  31. And no, I didn’t read every other comment you posted. I skim. I go from the bottom up and reply to things that interest me as they come up in that direction. Even if I had, I may not have realized you were the one commenting (misattribution of comments is super common in blogs with unthreaded comments), or I may have forgotten it. Such is life.

  32. Uly, if you can’t be bothered to actually read the posts in order, what makes you think your comments are necessary? If you quote MY post, then, yes, I think you’re adressing me. Go figure. Posting is a give and take process, not just you using everyone, as you are prone toward, to spout off on your chosen topic. It just comes off as so freakin’ condescending. If you can’t be bothered to read my posts, that’s fine, but don’t quote me, then pretend to tell me all about things I posted about a few posts above. It’s just plain rude.

  33. >>>>I skim.

    Of course you do, as you’re not actually interested in what anyone else has to say. You’re just waiting for your next opportunity to proclaim your dogma. Screw the rest of us.

  34. I wasn’t aware that I’d so grievously annoyed you, and I apologize.

  35. Yeah, most Girl Scout activities are sadly tame. You need permission slips to do ANYthing, and if your leaders or troop moms are not that into the activities then it’s not going to happen. (My mom was my leader for a while, and we had the worst time going camping because none of the other moms wanted to go, and my mom wasn’t allowed to take us alone, etc etc)

    And then the handbook is full of mooshy gooshy self esteem crap and how to deal with your pregnant teen sister, and not like, SCOUTING stuff.

  36. @Uly Camp Fire USA (and Girl Scouts) have a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.

    I attended, worked for and directed a Camp Fire camp for a total of 21 years.

    We did prohibit running because the ground is very rough, with roots, holes, muddy spots, etc, and it’s easy enough to turn an ankle walking (there were a few every year – usually staff, though!) let alone running.

    I don’t think kids miss a lot by slowing down a bit on their way to and from activities, and there was plenty of opportunity to run and play on the grassy field.

    That said, we also hiked and camped out and built fires and many other actvities.

    When I was young the camp was all girls, and then went coed. In the single-sex environment, girls were much more interested in the less stereotypical “girl stuff” but when it was coed, from about age 10, they were all about dressing and doing their hair to look good for the boys.

    A few years ago, I was one of a group of alumni who ran special session that we called “RetroCamp” – girls only, no electronics allowed, etc.

    It was, by far, the best week of camp I’d had in about 20 years.

  37. […] “Can it be true that some Girl Scout camps FORBID climbing trees?” [Skenazy, Free Range Kids] […]

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