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Better Choice? Sleep-Away Camp or Roam Free?
From America to Scandinavia, parents' say one, or the other, is the ideal way to gain independence, make friends and have fun. But the choice could't be more dramatically different. What should I do?
Camp or no camp?
Read last week’s debate about whether sleep-away camp is the craziest or best thing ever, with parents commenting from all over the world.
When we got back from Finland in July, I quickly learnt that there was nothing much I could do about my son’s playdate requests. His friends were just not here.
They were not traveling with their parents, but away from them, in sleep-away camps, for almost their entire summer vacation. I tried not to look shocked as my friends explained it was the best thing ever for them and their kids.
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In Finland, I had been just as shocked to learn that none of my sons’ friends’ parents, except one, even wanted to send them to a day camp with my kids. “Too much hassle!” or “Having family time at country cottage!” they texted back.
What Finnish parents say
Many Finnish parents explained to me that even scheduling day camps would tie them to a schedule, and summer vacation is supposed to be free of schedules and guided activities—and camps are not worth the expense—especially if kids can just play on their own.
What’s more, basically every single Finnish parent I talked to in person and on social said that the point of vacation is to get bored, so that kids can learn to how to be responsible for their own happiness and entertainment—a critical skill that turns them into content adults.
They added that, even if they might be fun, any scheduled and guided activity can also be stressful for a child, and only free play will truly clear their heads from the school year and hobbies, reset their nervous system from the “go go” to “do what you wish and do it on your own time”. They also feel you shouldn’t have to pay to play, and that as much as possible, any summer weeks of work should be be family time.
What American Parents Say
The American sleep-away camp advocates say that the camp experience is the only way their kids can develop independence, as in these countryside camps, the kids can roam somewhat free. They added that they also wanted their kids to make new friends outside of their tight circles. (Of course, the most expensive camps will also have other very privileged kids, and kids have an opportunity to make friends from other successful and sometimes famous families—building your network starts young in the US; it’s a fact that the right networks can help you succeed here).
Some American parents added that they also needed a break, and felt almost guilty how happy they were because their life suddenly got so much easier. (I can understand that—living in Finland last fall, I experienced firsthand how Nordic moms have dramatically less work and responsibilities with their children than American moms do).
What am I going to do?
So what am I going to do next summer? This summer, I think we found a happy medium: they spent a month on a day camp Monday through Friday, from 9am to 2pm, in a private golf club (yes, another privilege, and so far the only place here where the kids can have some freedom) where they spent the day doing their favorite sports. But next summer, will my oldest son be the only one here, if we don’t so sleep-away camp?
As I pondered over it, my middle son, soon 8, told me that summer is his favorite season. “It’s because you can spend more time with your parents,” he said. “In the fall, it’s school, sports, dinner, and bed—and we don’t get to spend enough time together.”
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What would you do?
Can you have all the fun and independence without separation? Or is separation, unless you live in a place where kids can roam free with their friends, like the Nordics, the key to independence and fun?
PS. If either side resonated with you, make sure to click the like button.
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