Sleepaway Camp as a 2nd Friend Network: An Insulation Against Social Cruelty

Posted by Carlen Long on Feb 19, 2016 10:28:59 AM



When you are growing up – or indeed, at any time in your life – one of the worst things imaginable is the idea of being alone.

I don’t mean the much-deserved “alone time” after a long day out, a busy week at a customer service job, a full day of school, or dealing with crazy family and friends. Being by yourself is valuable and important. One of my favorite things to do is to find a quiet place and read, completely on my own, for a little bit each day. As any introvert (or sometimes extrovert!) knows, being by yourself for a little while can be relaxing and empowering.

But that’s very different than the instinctive fear of being truly alone, without a support network of friends and family to call upon when needed. This fear can probably be traced back to our caveman days, where being alone – being “banished” from the tribe or the group – would mean almost certain death. No human could survive on their own back then, much less thrive.

Today, “banishment” from a social group doesn’t often happen in an explicit sense. But implicit banishment, or social cruelty, does happen. As anyone who survived middle school knows, the dynamics of a friend group – a “clique” – are incredibly variable and sometimes nonsensical. A child can be a part of an elite inner circle of friends one day, and then for no discernable reason, feel hurt and excluded by that same group the next day. Even elementary schoolers experience cliques and rapidly shifting friendships.

So what happens in our minds when, all of sudden, our comfortable group of friends seems to have abandoned us? When so-and-so posts a rude message about us on social media? Somewhere deep down, far below the level of conscious awareness, our caveman brain is jumping to some extreme conclusions: “They don’t like me” turns into “I’m alone” turns into “I’m gonna die.”

While we don’t consciously connect “being alone” with “certain death” anymore, it still makes us feel pretty terrible.

Camp can provide an incredibly effective buffer against the debilitating experience of feeling alone in the face of social cruelty from classmates or peers at home. When drama begins at school, a child might certainly feel sad and hurt – but a camper knows that while they’re feeling alone at the moment, they aren’t alone overall. They have a completely separate circle of friends at camp that won’t be influenced by school or extracurricular happenings at home.

Also, camp friendships and social groups aren’t just separate – they are often stronger and more long-lasting than friendships formed during the rest of the year. Resident camp, by its very nature, cultivates an accelerated sort of intimacy. I believe that this happens for a few reasons.

When you spend all-day every-day with your cabin, mentored by patient, loving counselors who are determined to create an atmosphere of acceptance and trust, deep friendships are almost inevitable. Campers who grow up together, returning to camp year after year, frequently describe their camp friends as their best friends. The freedom from technology and the pressures of school life allows campers to be more honest with themselves and each other. Our campers often say that they feel that they can be “true to themselves” while at camp and “take off the mask” they wear in the rest of the world. Especially in the pre-teen and early teenage years, where children try on identities like clothes at a department store, this freedom found at summer camp is a rare and precious opportunity.

Friendships formed at camp are between people who are hiding nothing. Coming to sleepaway camp, even for only a few weeks each year, can improve self confidence in relationships, foster trust and honesty, and create bonds more special than any others.

So when a teenager doesn’t know how to deal with a bully on social media, or disaster strikes at the playground in elementary school, campers don’t have to feel like their social world is collapsing around them, that they’ll never have another friend, that they’ll be alone forever, and that they’ll die. They have their camp friends, as well as the support network of counselors and staff whose job and passion is to make sure they feel loved and accepted.

And it’s a job we do pretty well.


Carlen ma'am


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Tags: Parents, success