March 5, 2014
Parents often ask about the difference between traditional camps and Christian camps. Parents want to make the right decision about camp and this is an area that they often struggle with. In this blog, I will attempt to describe the difference to help you make this decision.
Before I start, please allow me two thoughts.
First, I believe that any quality camps can be an unequaled place for a child to foster independence, confidence, grit, interpersonal skills, spirituality and leadership. I have written extensively on this in my Psychology Today blog as well as my camp articles. Ultimately, I think these skills are the greatest gift of camp and should be the focus of any parent attempting to find the right camp for their child. The skills learned at an excellent camp are critical for success in the future (college and career) as well as current life. As a result, I encourage parents to choose a camp more on the quality of its team and their philosophy than anything else.
Second, term length is a critical consideration. As I describe in another article, there is a meaningful developmental difference between 1-week camps and longer camps. In order for campers to absorb the maximum benefits of a camp experience, they need to “steep” in the community and its role models. I do not believe that a true community occurs in just one week. At least, I have never seen it done successfully. Since new campers generally take 2-4 days to fully integrate into their cabin and the broader camp community, a 6 or 7 day session provides little time for them to glean the benefits of the role models and the traditions, especially when the last day is filled with packing and winding up the term. With this in mind, it is not useful to compare a 1-week camp to a 2 or 3-week camp. The experiences are simply too different, even before you consider the faith element.
With that said, please allow me to share some thoughts on the benefits of both types of camps. I have run both kinds and know the relative strengths of each.
Christian camps help reinforce the messages of the church. They often include specific religious activities, like Bible studies and Christian songs. The counselors are generally all Christians and provide role models for the campers to see. It is nice for a camper to see young adults who shares their faith. They also often have a code of conduct (e.g., not-drinking) that is appealing to parents.
Traditional camps provide a different experience. Campers get to meet people from different religious and ethnic traditions and learn to understand and respect them. I have also noticed that traditional camps tend to have a wider variety of activities to challenge (and amuse) their campers. They are much more likely to be family run, which I have found provides a level of personal involvement and commitment that makes a meaningful difference to the camper (and parent) experience.
Each type of camp has its own potential pitfalls. The Christian camp often struggles when theology and religious education are placed in the hands of a college-aged person. Incredibly well-intended counselors can share views (role of women, fate of non-believers) that are often more conservative than those of the parents. After all, counselors attracted to Christian camps tend to be very strong in their beliefs and can often be overly enthusiastic with sharing them. For example, I had a counselor once tell a young Episcopalian that his infant baptism “did not count” and offered to perform a new one in the lake. He meant well, but his efforts were clearly at odds with the parent’s goals. Many parents believe that religious education is one of their top responsibilities and have concerns about trusting the subtleties of their faith to an untrained 19 year-old.
By contrast, counselors at traditional camps might fall short as role models at times. They can find themselves discussing topics better suited for older campers when they interact with campers and forget to be sufficiently wholesome.
After working at both types of camps, we have endeavored to find the best of both worlds at our camp (Camp Champions). We have a diverse community where children meet campers with different views and backgrounds, but we also obsess on creating a community that is wholesome and full of inspiring role models. For example, our counselors agree to abstain from alcohol throughout their employment and we spend 2 weeks training them on being sensitive to the needs and wants of our parents. We stress that parents expect them to be “G” rated and positive. We have endeavored to create a community that supports the values of all faiths, stressing the “4 R’s” (Respect, Responsibility, Reaching out to others and taking reasonable Risks) and modeling love toward each member of the community. Our belief is that any camper leaving our camp would arrive home a better Methodist or Presbyterian or Catholic or Jew.
Ultimately, finding the right camp is a very important and personal decision. I encourage parents to talk directly with the camp’s directors to ask them about the mission and philosophy of the camp. I know that camp can also be a great way to encourage a child’s faith, but it is perhaps a unique place to cultivate life skills that can create lasting advantage for their children. Any selection of a camp should focus as much on these skills as their faith.
If you would like to find more resources on finding the best summer camp experience for your family, please explore some of the links below:
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