Sending a kid to specialty camp keeps him or her on the track and off the roof

June 16, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

It is that time of year when parents write enormous checks to secure a place for their children in a summer camp.

Actually, it is past that time of year.

If you are just now writing a check to secure a bunk or a spot on the roster for your child, you are too late.

The only camps that have openings now are the ones run by a local government agency, camps where the children spend eight hours a day playing old board games with missing pieces. These camps generally cost something like $25 for eight weeks.

If you want to place your child in a top-flight sports camp or outdoor sleep-over camp or arts camp, you should have been sorting through brochures and writing checks before the Christmas tree was down.

Summer camps -- an amalgam of child care, respite care and an East German sports institute -- fill up very quickly.

One reason is that working parents need to know that their children will not be tying a teen-age baby-sitter to a chair and setting her hair on fire during those long, dull summer afternoons.

Parents need to be able to leave for the office assured that their children will not be eating icing on white bread for lunch while sitting on the roof of the house. (This actually happened to me. I can say with authority that after an incident such as this, a parent never picks up the ringing phone on her desk in quite the same way.)

But parents have another, more long-term goal when they choose a camp for their child -- college scholarship and/or career.

When parents choose a camp, they are thinking one of two things: a full ride to a Division I college or the national touring company of "Annie."

Parents don't talk about these private ambitions in polite company, but they are all worried about whether there will be a spot on the high-school varsity roster for a child who hasn't been committed to year-round soccer since the age of 8.

This is the age of specialization, and it has reached down and laid hands on our children, requiring them to make life choices before they have body hair.

These choices are now codified in what my friend Nancy calls a ritual dance among the ambitious parent, the spoiled child and the professionals running the camps. Kids don't dabble in stuff anymore; they are waiting anxiously to hear if they made the travel squad or the junior company.

For example, I signed my son up for soccer camp again this year. We don't play lacrosse in our family. My husband has strong negative feelings about lacrosse that I attribute to his Eastern European ancestry. "No son of mine," he has declared, "is going to run around with a bird cage on his head."

Anyway, after writing a check that would cover one month's installment on a Volvo station wagon, we had to choose a specialty for soccer camp: field player or goalie.

I would like to meet the boys who choose goalie. My son would never choose goalie. Why would he want to spend a week lTC having boys he does not know well watch him fail to stop soccer balls that are sailing past his head? He thinks goalie is a position the coach makes you play if you are fat. He would never choose to be goalie. He would rather spend a week reading.

My son does not want to do soccer camp. He wants to make money selling candy at the swimming pool to the children of the women who were my friends before he discovered capitalism. But, at age 12, he is resigned to the fact that camp is required if he is going to keep pace with the other boys on his soccer team.

"Soccer is my life," he says, with a sigh. "I know that about myself."

My husband has signed up my daughter for basketball camp. I have signed her up for ballet camp. This illustrates another difficulty with summer camps. They shine a harsh light on the previously hidden agendas of parents.

I do not believe my daughter has a college scholarship or a career waiting for her in basketball. As a matter of fact, I think she plays basketball like a ballerina.

But my husband, who coaches girls basketball when he is not talking to his best friend about coaching girls basketball, calls Jessie and her friend Emily his "Twin Towers." He phones me from work and asks, "Is she outside shooting? Has she been shooting today?"

No, I say peevishly. She and the other Tower are playing Barbie.

I am ashamed of my behavior because my husband has not been so childish with me. He thinks ballet camp is an excellent idea. "It will make her a better basketball player," he says.

My daughter is not sure she wants to go to basketball camp or ballet camp. She is not sure what she wants to wear today, but she is sure of one thing: "If you start loading my summer up with a lot of things I don't want to do, I will be irritable."

Summer camps are about kids polishing a craft, not making a craft. Children who can't remember to flush are asked to choose among their many interests at younger and younger ages and to focus on that choice in such a way as to ensure a place among their peers and their promotion to more and more elite levels.

This specialization is, in turn, expected to guarantee their financial or academic futures, or at least keep them out of the malls.

However, there is really only one thing you can be sure of: If your kids are in camp, they won't be eating icing sandwiches on the roof.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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