At one time in their lives, many of the parents I know were camp counselors. Those same people have told me that their time spent as counselors was great training ground for parenting. Among other things, they learned to comfort, encourage, set goals, and resolve disputes — all things we experience daily in our lives as moms and dads.
However, not every parent has had the benefit of camp counselor training. In fact, most parents have had NO training at all. Perhaps they took a Lamaze class or two, but we all know that having the kid is not the hardest part!
I’ve often lamented that all parents should be required to go through some training, at least the same training camp counselors do (a minimum of one week at most camps). Unfortunately, that is not the case, nor is it realistic. So the best we can do for those who were never camp counselors is offer a few tried and true tips from a few outstanding folks who were:
2. Check in with each child one-on-one every day.
4. Sing and dance together A LOT.
5. Smile and stay positive. Apologize for any crabbiness.
6. Address difficult issues privately and by focusing on the ISSUE not the child.
7. Do team-building activities like sharing goals and dreams.
8. Get unplugged and focus on face-to-face communication.
9. Get outside and get dirty.
10. Follow a predictable schedule and enforce rules consistently.
“Do you have a one week session?” is one of the questions we often get asked by parents who are new to our program. The question is usually preceded or followed by the comment, “Two weeks is too long for my child.”
I thought it would be helpful to outline for new parents why Gold Arrow Camp has a two-week session length as our primary camp offering. Although we also offer one-week specialty camp options at the beginning and end of the summer, Gold Arrow Camp’s core program is a two-week session, and that is the length of time the majority of our campers attend camp. We also have campers who are “Monthers,” who attend four weeks of camp by combining two, two-week sessions.
There are many benefits to camp, regardless of length of stay, as per the American Camp Association study. So, I urge you to find a camp that fits your family’s needs and schedule, even if Gold Arrow is not the best fit for you.
Our program, up until the 1970s, was a month-long program. Many traditional, East Coast camps still offer only one seven or eight-week session. To people in the West, this sounds crazy, as most programs on our side of the country are one-week in length. However, families who have been part of Gold Arrow and other traditional camp programs understand the benefits of a longer camp stay.
Many traditional camps in California have started offering one-week programs, because that’s what many parents think they want for their child. Fortunately, our camp families have kept our two-week sessions consistently full, so we will continue to offer what we consider the best length for our program.
Why does Gold Arrow Camp have two-week sessions?
Here are four reasons:
Community and Friendship Building
Breadth and Depth of Activities
Social Skill Development
Independence and Confidence Building
1. Community and Friendship Building
“Eli had the greatest summer camp experience. He knew no one going to camp and come home with a host of new friends. He had a huge smile on his face when we greeted him and it lasted for a long time. He was pushed to achieve and he was proud of himself for achieving his goals.” – 2014 GAC Parents
While a lot of fun happens during even just one day of camp, spending more time connecting and building bonds with counselors, cabin mates, and other campers is one of the benefits of a two-week stay.
The first week of the session, there is an adjustment period for the first few days, when campers are getting settled and getting to know one another, the schedule, and the activities. By the middle of the first week, campers feel settled and comfortable at camp, and relationships have the opportunity to start getting deeper. Friendships, while they can definitely be formed in one week, have a better chance to grow stronger and deeper with more connection time.
“My children lead busy lives during the school year with various teams and enrichment programs. Going to Gold Arrow Camp allows them to unwind and gain a new perspective on friendship, goals and life. From my perspective, GAC is summer the way it is supposed to be for kids. Thank you!!” – 2014 GAC Parents
Because all of the campers in the cabin group are at camp for the same length of time (two weeks), there are no departures and arrivals in the middle of the session to disrupt the group’s cohesiveness and the bonds that have developed. Everyone arrives together and departs together, with the exception of our Monther campers, who stay on for another session after their first two-weeks end.
2. Breadth and Depth of Activities
“Gold Arrow Camp is a great summer camp experience. Our son has gone to GAC for 4 years now and every year he sees old friends, makes new ones, tries new things, compares his skills at the activities from the current year to past summers, can be independent and responsible for himself and his belongings, and gets to enjoy the beautiful camp setting away from the heat in Phoenix. He is already looking forward to next summer when he will receive his 5-year blanket.” – 2014 GAC Parents
We take advantage of our location on Huntington Lake, in the heart of the Sierra National Forest, by teaching campers a large variety of water and land-based recreational activities. Many of our activities require extensive time and instruction. Sailing, as an example, is an activity that begins with a 2 ½ hour group lesson, and can be followed up by many additional lessons as campers opt for more sailing during Free Time. Without adequate time, it would be impossible for campers to even get to all of the activities we offer, let alone build skills in them. We want our campers to get exposure to all of what is offered at camp, and have the opportunity to pursue activities they are passionate about.
During their two weeks at Gold Arrow, campers have the opportunity to learn to sail, ride a horse, shoot a rifle, get up on water skiis, and participate in a myriad of other activities. Many of these sports require time and practice to master. For first-time campers, two weeks is just enough time to expose them to all of the different activities and start practicing and improving skills. Returning campers continue to build upon and develop new skills, even after five or six years at our program. The depth of instruction offered, the opportunity to improve recreational skills, and the ability to earn different patches and certifications all distinguish Gold Arrow Camp’s program.
We have two outpost programs, away from our main camp, that take up a portion of the two-week session. We have a water sports outpost camp on an island on Shaver Lake where campers enjoy one or two nights camping on the beach. At Shaver Island, campers spend their days on the lake improving their skills in waterskiing, wakeboarding, and kneeboarding. While these sports are also done at our main camp on Huntington Lake, their stay at Shaver allows our two-week campers time to really improve their skills with a lot of “behind the boat” time. Our other outpost program is backpacking. All campers go on a one-night overnight backpacking trip and get to experience outdoor cooking, sleeping under the stars, and living in nature.
There are some activities that we wait to do until the second week of camp, when campers are feeling connected and more comfortable taking risks. At the end of the second week of camp, we have our dance, and several all-day, sign up trips. Campers can opt to spend the day sailing across Huntington Lake, going on a long horse trail ride, climbing challenging terrain on a rock climbing trip, and more.
Honestly, even two weeks seems short to us. We barely get campers to all of our activities, and it’s time for them to go home!
3. Social Skills Development
“Gold Arrow Camp added a new dimension to our daughter’s summer. She was able participate in sports and activities she had not done before; further develop her social skills by meeting new people and being involved with her cabin mates a large part of each day; and enjoy free time in a beautiful setting free of electronics.” – 2014 GAC Parents
Kids benefit from experiences living and working in groups regardless of the length of time. However, I believe that allowing a group to really bond and connect also allows kids to grow their communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution skills more than when they are in a shorter-term program.
4. Independence and Confidence Building
“Both girls came home SO happy! Melissa came home today, Jesse last week. Melissa had gone to camp knowing no one, and upon her return, she had to finish BIG hugs good-bye with friends before she’d get in the car to go home. On our drive home, she went a mile a minute with stories about her 2 weeks at GAC, and when she got home, she burst into tears, saying she missed camp, her friends, and that she wished she could live at camp all year round! At that point we told her she could go back next year for 4 weeks, and she became overjoyed with excitement, and wanted us to sign her up for 2012 right then and there. Jessica ‘Jess’, also had an amazing experience. She came home last Saturday, after 1 week, as she was a Nugget. She, too wants to go back next year, this time for ‘either 2… maybe 4 weeks.’ Considering she’s only 7, we are amazed. Both girls look like they grew 2 inches each while away, but it’s really an extra gained confidence where they’re walking taller and prouder with themselves. We are SO thrilled that we found Gold Arrow Camp, a camp their second cousin went to almost 20 years ago. As the famous vanilla tree has been rooted at GAC for years and years, we look forward to our girls being rooted there for years and years to come, too. Thanks for such a positive, growing, and out of this world experience!” – 2014 GAC Parent
“As a multi-generational Gold Arrow Family, nothing beats your child immersed high-up in the Sierra Nevada for total fun and adventure. Every day brings a sublime surprise. They return with confident Sierra Nevada Mountain swagger that is part-and-parcel with a positive can-do attitude.”- 2014 GAC Parent
GAC gave our daughter the freedom to make choices, and the support to make good ones.
“Our daughter went from not being able to sleep overnight at friends houses to spending three weeks at GAC. GAC provided our daughter with the confidence of knowing that she can accomplish anything that she sets her mind to complete.” – 2014 GAC Parents
For many kids, their stay at camp is the first time that they have ever been away from their parents at all. Some have attended sleep-overs, weekend scout camps, or week-long school programs, but for many campers, their first stay at Gold Arrow is the longest they’ve been away from their parents. We know this, and our counselors are trained to help first-time campers get adjusted to being away and learn to cope with feelings of missing their parents.
Campers feel a great sense of pride in themselves after “being on their own,” and having fun, without mom or dad nearby. While two weeks seem slow to parents, especially during their first camp experience, the days fly by at Camp.
“Two weeks was not enough for our son….now he’s a MONTHER!” – 2014 GAC Parent
Written by Christine Carter, Ph.D.
I will never, not ever, forget the first time I dropped my kids off at Gold Arrow Camp.
The drop-off didn’t go very well.
When I was a kid, I begged and begged to go to sleep-a-way camp with my best friend, Rory. I did extra chores to earn it, and I counted the days until I got there. I don’t remember being homesick or sad at the drop-off. I remember feeling wild and free. I loved the horses and the outdoors and ceramics. I got postcards from my teachers. It was awesome.
My kids had mixed feelings about going to camp that first year: they were excited, but also scared. “TWO WEEKS!?” my youngest cried when I told her what, to me, was great news: They were going to summer camp! “They have horses!” I said cheerfully, trying to drum up excitement. “And sailing! I’ve never been sailing myself,” I mourned. “You’ll get to do it before I do!”
I said this knowing full well that sailing is actually not on my daughters’ bucket list. It’s on mine.
The kids spent the last few weeks readying for camp and making serious sister pacts to stick together. My younger daughter, Molly, was particularly concerned about what would happen if her older sister made friends first. Would Fiona and she still pick the same activities? Could Molly join Fiona with her new friends? Pinky-swears of allegiance were traded, plans to sneak into each other’s cabins made.
Molly had a plan: Fiona would take care of her. She was nervous, but also excited.
Fiona was calm, reassuring.
That is, until about an hour before we arrived at camp. At which point Fiona became more clammy than cool and collected. She developed vague “not feeling well” symptoms. She was too carsick to eat lunch. When we arrived, she was faintly green.
Altitude sick, I declared. “Drink some water,” I insisted. “Take deep breaths,” I said, taking them myself. “Think good thoughts, Fiona. Find two things to be excited about.”
Frankly, I was feeling faint myself.
But the thing is, I believe that it is important to challenge kids. To get them truly outside of their comfort zones so that they can grow. Hence two weeks instead of a mini-camp.
My desire to challenge my kids was reinforced in an Atlantic article about “Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.” The gist of this article is that “kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems.” And the article is right—they don’t.
The article reminded me that happiness—an often fleeting emotion—in and of itself is not the goal. That comfort—my own or my children’s—is not the goal. Instead, all of this is about how to lead a happy life. And while it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions (like gratitude and compassion, for example), it also comes from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments.
My kids have had their difficulties in the last several years—my divorce, a move away from a beloved school and neighborhood, a humbling medical situation—and they’ve risen to each challenge, though not without pain.
(I’d like to pause to acknowledge that even with those difficulties, my kids have a pretty cushy life. We don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from or where we will sleep tonight. That said, the fear the kids had anticipating me leaving them at camp was very real to all of us.)
At any rate, by sending my kids to camp, I was sending them the message that I believe that they can manage loneliness, and homesickness, and anxiety. I believed that they could, at the tender ages of 8 and 10, handle these difficult emotions themselves, without me standing over their shoulders telling them to breathe. As awful as it sometimes feels to me, they simply don’t always need me there, telling them what to do and what to think.
By sending my kids to camp, I send them the message that I think it is incredibly important to unplug for a while every year. And not just from electronics and phones and computers and TVs, but also from their well-meaning but often over-bearing mom. They learn that it won’t kill them to not report back to me on every high point and low point of their day, every kind deed, every “good thing.”
In sending my kids to camp, I make it abundantly clear what I value: real time spent outdoors, the social skills needed to make new friends, compassion, gratitude (compassion and gratitude are themes at GAC), and most importantly, their own autonomy.
I say all this, but of course deep down I wanted it to be easy for them. So when Fiona became so nervous as we dropped her off that she needed to lie down in the infirmary, I also became a nervous wreck.
“She’ll be fine,” the camp nurse, Tigger, reassured me. “Now we need you to hop on that van – it is the last one headed back to the parking lot!”
I had become the lingering parent who wouldn’t leave and who was making the whole thing worse for her kid by trying to make it better. But who could fault me for not wanting to leave my kid IN THE INFIRMARY?! I justified to myself.
In the end, Fiona rallied, but not before she became so nervous she threw up, just minutes after I got on the bus back to the parking lot. She spent her first four hours at camp with the nurse, who french-braided her hair and gave her cold cloths for her forehead until she was feeling better. She looks back on that time and mostly remembers being bored; Tigger needed to be sure she didn’t have a flu or something, and so even once Fiona felt fine, she had to stay in the infirmary for a while.
I didn’t know until she got home that Fiona had thrown up (thank goodness I didn’t know that; who knows what I would have done if I knew). Once I got back to my car, two weeks of profound discomfort began for me.
I spent those two weeks obsessively checking the camp website for photos and my mailbox for postcards, looking for evidence that my girls were happy. I answered dozens of emails and comments on my blog, defending my decision to send my kids to camp, and to leave Fiona there in the infirmary, terrified.
After what seemed like two years, the kids camp home on the GAC bus, wearing t-shirts that said, “Happy Camper.” And, in fact, that is what they were: so, so happy.
Two weeks of being unplugged helped them tune into nature in a way they don’t anywhere else. Though both reported missing home, they found comfort in knowing that they could cope with homesickness. They each tried dozens of new activities and sports, took on new challenges, and learned to accept their discomfort as a part of their growth.
Both kids made friends that they kept in touch with all year, and hope to return to GAC every year with “forever.”
Still, sending kids to camp is not for wimps. It requires a leap of faith that the difficulty (and, l’ll just say it, that the cost) will be worth it. It requires an ability to manage the emotional discomfort that comes with not-knowing, not-controlling, not-checking—it requires just trusting. But I’m comfortable with that discomfort.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a parent coach and the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. She coaches and teaches online classes in order to help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for parents and couples. She is also a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Sign up for her short weekly Happiness Tips at www.christinecarter.com.
Here at Gold Arrow Camp we are huge proponents of being unplugged and enjoying the outdoors. In fact, being unplugged from technology (phones, computers, video games) and spending more time connecting with people face-to-face is one the benefits of coming to camp. We love technology and use it for many things, including posting photos from camp so parents can see the fun that’s going on. However, we believe it’s beneficial for us all to take a break from the technology around us. For a little more in depth of an answer, we put together this lovely infographic with Sunshine’s thoughts on five reasons why we should get unplugged, even when we’re not at camp.
See Sunshine’s full article on unplugging here.