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Why Do We Send Our Kids to Sleepaway Camp?

The real reasons we send our kids to camp will probably surprise you.

In many parts of the U.S., sleepaway camp is a rite of summer. In fact, every June, July, and August, more than 12,000 American camps operate at or near capacity; 7,000 of those are sleepaway camps. That’s a lot of campers, and a lot of money: it’s estimated that summer camp is a $15 billion industry in the U.S. Kids can attend marine biology sleepaway camp or sleepaway sailing camp or sleepaway math camp. There is, it seems, a camp for every child, parent, and preference.

Why? What makes us love camp, or love it as a place for our kids?

In spite of its ubiquity, summer camp is W.E.I.R.D.—Jared Diamond’s not-coincidentally chosen acronym for all things Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. To state the obvious, there’s no sleepaway camp for kids of band foragers, hunter gatherers, or pre-contact tribes in the Amazon. But the popularity of summer sleep away camp in America derives in large part from an impulse, as a culture, to re-create some of the original conditions of childhood, conditions today mostly seen among precisely those traditional societies who would find the entire concept of sleepaway camp utterly alien and quite likely insane.

In A Manufactured Wildness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth 1890 – 1960, Abigail Van Slyck details the rise of the summer camps in the 1880s, linking them to reforms in child labor and education laws, as well as a rising fetishization of “folk culture” and commodification of “the countryside” in response to “back to nature” movements on both sides of the Atlantic. But sleepaway camps have unlikely-seeming origins not only in history, but in our evolutionary prehistory. In early 21st century America, camps, like mushrooms, pop up everywhere when the ecological conditions—economic privilege, generous amounts of leisure time, and childhood utterly altered from its evolutionary “purpose”—are right. To understand how summer camp evolved, we have to understand the evolution of childhood.

Here, then, are a few of the unexpected factors that go into your decision to send your kid to summer camp:

Birth rates

For much of our evolutionary prehistory, anthropologists including Meredith Small tell us, we lived in egalitarian, non-hierarchical “bands,” basically following the food and raising our children communally. Kids fell in together in rangy multi-age groups and spent much of their days that way, teaching and learning from each other, the older ones tending to the younger ones and imparting practical skills—cooking, herding, gathering—that they themselves learned from their parents and other adults. We know this from anthropologists who study the lives of contemporary foragers and hunter-gatherers, who live as we likely did in the Pleistocene.

With the shift to living in nuclear families and lower birth rates in today’s post industrial American society, Small and others who study childhood have observed, the most efficient way to create groups of kids is to clump them together by age, as we do in schools. There, unrelated strangers impart mostly abstract knowledge and school-related skills (versus practical skills related to day-to-day living) to other people’s children. Camps mostly lump kids by age group too, but they provide a context where kids mix and mingle with their elders and their youngers, as they always did before shifts in ecology and economy put an end to it.

Childhood’s origins as a time of work and helping

The notion that childhood is an idyll and time for play and learning is a relatively recent and very Western concept. Kids in many societies work around the household or village, helping their parents in very real ways. They watch their younger and toddler siblings, perhaps holding a baby for a few moments while mom does an essential task. They haul water, gather firewood, and tend to ducks or sheep or goats. They may help in the field if their lives are agricultural, or help gather and forage. Worldwide and in our evolutionary history, kids have always worked. We’re not talking about exploitive practices that violate child labor laws here, but tasks that are “educational” in terms of life skills, and even fun for kids. Anthropologists like Barry Bogin suggest that childhood evolved precisely so kids could help adults out, which in turn freed up adults to reproduce again.

No, you don’t exactly send your kid to camp because you want to have another baby! But at camp, kids who may be highly tended to at home do in fact learn and re-learn lessons about industry and helping out. They make their own beds and keep their own bunk area and cabins tidy and clean. They may bus and clean tables in the mess hall. Sure, they are fed and their activities are supervised. But at camp, no one puts their clothing out for them in the morning, makes their bed for them, or checks whether they have flossed. They do it themselves, or it doesn’t get done. This is a version of the evolutionary script of childhood—doing and being a net contributor to the household and in the process shifting the burden from adults alone, so they can have more kids.

It’s no coincidence that even the fun games kids play at camp—Capture the Flag, scavenger hunts, hide and seek—often have themes of struggle and overcoming and working toward a goal. Or that big kids look out for littler ones in many camp settings. Play may be the work of children in the 21st century, but in our evolutionary prehistory, work was the work of children, who often tended to younger sibs so adults could have more children.

Balancing autonomy with cooperation

Embedded in our practice of shipping our kids away from us for several weeks every year is an impulse to give them something they cannot get in their everyday lives, institutionalized in school, stymied in cities and isolated in suburbs—free reign balanced with a sense of connection. While kids in other cultures work in important and meaningful ways and contribute to their households, they may also have a remarkable-seeming-to-us degree of autonomy, self-direction, and self-confidence, balanced with a sense of connectedness and community. Anthropologist Karen Kramer, who studies the lives of children in a traditional Mayan village in the Yucatan peninsula, notes that while they work really, really hard, these children and their parents report high levels of happiness and the parents report none of the dissatisfactions or parental angst their American counterparts do. That’s likely because the Mayan kids know exactly what to do and feel good knowing they know how to do it. And their parents feel helped out, not hindered and depleted.

These are precisely the conditions that a good sleep away camp will strive to provide for the kids who are sent there: “jobs” they can master, relationships with others they can handle, adults who can direct and keep them safe with minimal “interference.” An underlying and very culturally-specific fixation on “independence” and a widely-held, socially sanctioned belief that our children need to “become independent” is part and parcel of US sleep away camp practices. The independence learned at camp, however, is more like autonomy and competence, a paradoxical, highly social “independence in the interest of others.”

You want a break from your children

Of course you do. And not because you’re a bad mother or father, or impatient or selfish. Childhood evolved so that kids could lend us a hand. We have changed it utterly, however, so that today we serve our children. We are their educational, nutritional, and safety advocates, their sports advisors and math partners, their chauffeurs and tutors. It’s not the way it “should” be, and it’s exhausting. Everybody needs a reprieve from what we have turned childhood, and parenthood, into.

Sources/further reading

Bogin, Barry, “Evolutionary Hypotheses for Human Childhood,” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 40: 63 – 89 (1997).

Small, Meredith, Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children (Anchor, 2002).

Kramer, Karen, Maya Children: Helpers at the Farm (Harvard, 2005)

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