Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The bonds not formed at summer camp

One of the most commonly cited reasons for sending your kids to summer camp is the lifelong friendships they will make. I'm starting to wonder, though, if that is really the case.

Granted, I have an unusual experience with camp. The longest I ever went to a single camp was two summers in a row, and my 20 years experience as a camp counselor is spread across camps all over the company. So maybe I just never stayed in one place long enough to form those really deep bonds.

Still. Sophomore year in high school I went to camp for the full summer. The program was really intense, and we were really close by the end of the summer. There were promises of staying in touch, exchanging letters, and getting together as often as possible...

It happened once, that I was aware of.

Like I said, I didn't return to that camp; most of the rest of the group had been there for years, and would continue to come, as campers and staff, for several more. So I'm sure there were opportunities aplenty for them. But my contact with the group was rare.

Granted, this was in the days before the internet. Keeping a group of 60-or-so teenagers connected pre-email was difficult as best. Have things changed in the era of Facebook? Not really. Again, I'm sure many of my fellow campers were in touch with each other, but none of them were on my friend list.

Then, this summer, one of my camp friends died. As is frequently the case, this tragedy brought the group back together. It started as support for our friend's family, and mutual grieving and remembrance. From there, it grew into a full Facebook group. We caught up on each others' lives and renewed friendships. Plans were made for meetups in Chicago and on the East Coast.

As of today, there has not been a new post in the group since early September.

I'm not casting aspersions. We were part of each others' lives for one summer almost two decades ago; we've moved on since then and made new friends. These people were someone else's friends, a younger version of me who was someone different.

Still and all, it makes me wonder. Is this the typical experience people have with their camp friends, or are they really forming lifelong bonds?


  1. I think this experience you describe is more frequent than people are willing to admit. The intensity in the moment looms large. *This* is the experience we got from the camp: The here-and-now power of the summer itself. We don't typically form life-long bonds based on the camp. But sometimes the camp has life-long impact on our individual lives.

    I went to a variety of camps, throughout my childhood, every summer. I think primarily they affected how I grew up and what type of person I created myself to be, how I approached the school year, how I socialized with the world around me, and (of course also rarely admitted) how I approached romantic relationships and dating. Who didn't have stories about "camp dating" if you went to camp between the ages of 12-18? Maybe some of those lessons were unrealistic, maybe some of them were helpful. Probably they fueled my tendency toward being extroverted, feeling like I could do anything, and the horrible loneliness of being acquaintances with everyone and close friends to almost no one. But camp had a huge impact on me, if not the people themselves remaining with me.

    Other intensive experiences (like touring as a musician twice, once as a singer, once as an instrumentalist) yielded only one long-lasting relationship, and only because she and I bonded as friends on the trip, lost touch, and then found each other through a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging. The tour didn't make us friends, it just brought us together for a friendship destined based on who we are as people.

  2. Yeah; I've noticed this with a lot of intense experiences. My Birthright trip to Israel was basically the same thing (tear-soaked promises to never lose touch; haven't heard from them since). And I know the research says this is a common effect.

    I do see a positive effect in what you describe, though. Many people use camp as an opportunity to experiment with the person they want to become. Sometimes the "Camp dating experiences", leadership opportunities, and friendships lay the groundwork for when we grow out of that awkward teenage phase.

  3. Never made promises to stay in touch with anybody I went to camp with. I did stay stay in touch with one guy for two decades, but have lost track of him now.

    I also had an encounter with somebody who remembered me from summer camp, at least ten years after we were there as boys. It took me a moment to remember who he was. Then all I could say was, "Your voice has changed."