Danya Lantz was a little stressed as she packed her 8-year-old daughter up for sleepover camp. It wasn’t that she had too much to do in preparation; rather, she was worried about what packages to send and whether her daughter would receive as many or as lavish gifts as her cabin mates.
“It’s a big problem,” says Lantz, whose daughter is spending three weeks at overnight camp this summer. Last year, she watched as camp-mates received items such as trendy clothing, stuffed animals, scented markers and fluffy pajamas. “I had to explain that the whole point of going to camp is about having fun, not getting things, but last year she was very upset and jealous. All her friends compared gifts, and she wrote home to tell me what others got. It made me really sad.”
It’s not uncommon for campers to receive mail and email, as well as several packages a week, from parents, grandparents and cousins. Especially as anything can be easily shipped from sites such as Amazon.com to camps across the country.
It’s led many camps to institute a strict no-package policy.
Lauren and Mark Bernstein, owners and directors of Camp Walden New York, were early adopters. When they bought the camp, located in Diamond Point, N.Y., 12 years ago, a no-package policy felt good to them from the start.
“Camp is the gift,” says Lauren Bernstein. “What parents have already given them is this place and this experience. It’s about community, friendship, honing your skills and playing games. It’s not about who has what or who has more or which campers are in the position of power to say who gets candy and who doesn’t. There’s more than enough treats here, and we are so happy to share.”
The camp encourages parents to send as many letters and emails as they like, and while campers are able to make phone calls from camp four times each summer, any packages will be confiscated.
“We know it’s hard for parents to send their kids away, and they want to mail their campers gifts to show they love and miss them, but let’s let the gift of camp speak for itself,” says Bernstein. “We are working hard to keep the focus on kids and to give them a down-to-earth-experience where it’s not about ‘more.’ Camp is a time to put a stop on that for a little bit.”
Some parents really appreciate the philosophy. Pamela Bard’s three children attended a no-package sleepover camp for almost eight years each, and one of her daughters is still there. “No-package policies relieve parents of the pressure to send gifts constantly, and it eliminates competition among bunkmates. It can feel like a rat race otherwise. Nobody wins.”
She thinks kids are happy with what they have, and not sending packages levels the playing field. “My daughter is with the same girls, and they are amazingly connected throughout the year. They don’t judge each other; they support each other. With no cellphones or extra things, there is a sense of inclusion. They get back to basics, and they get to feel what it’s like to be a kid.”
Other parents argue that receiving packages is all part of the fun of being a kid away at overnight camp. Many families delight in sending their campers gifts such as toys, emoji pillows and Polaroid cameras. In a recent Facebook post, one friend’s photo showed she sent her daughter a box filled with balloons. There was a different present in each balloon, and the kids had to pop the balloons to see what was inside.
Camps that accept packages admit it can get out of control, with office staff spending up to three hours every day sorting through mail and confiscating packages from parents who sneak contraband candies or cellphones into empty shampoo bottles and shorts pockets.
Ellie Bass runs the front office at Moshava California, in Running Springs, Calif., and says the camp package policy is working well for them. Parents often send items they forgot to pack, such as stamps or hats, or they mail things such as stickers for their campers to share with their bunkmates. If any kids feel left out, staff reassure campers that love isn’t based on the number of packages they receive.
More than anything, their package policy gets at the heart of one of the camp’s core values. “When parents send items for the whole cabin, it’s a great way to teach kids to be givers, to take care of their friends,” says Bass. “Packages are an opportunity to make sharing and caring a teachable moment.”
Many camps fall somewhere in the middle of both policies. Camp Saginaw in Chester County, Pa., allows packages that can fit in a 9-by-12 envelope, but there are exceptions for forgotten items and birthdays. “In general, we are definitely seeing a shift toward getting away from tons of packages. It’s not like it used to be,” says Jessica Petkov, director of the camp, whose kids, ages 7 and 10, also attend.
What is new, perhaps, is the amount of mail and email campers receive, says Petkov. “We get hundreds, if not thousands, of [pieces of] mail and email each day, and it can take 45 minutes to two hours to sort and distribute it to campers, depending on the day and who’s sorting it,” she says. “As a mom, I do feel a sense that I want my kids to be like everyone else, and I will make sure they get an envelope and mail, too.”
Two years ago, Camp Olympia in Trinity, Tex., changed its policy from “all packages allowed” to “only internal packages allowed.” The new rules enable parents to purchase from the camp office up to two “Special Deliveries” a term. These deliveries include items that can be used while at camp and during downtime. Once each week, they can also order their camper something from the camp’s online store, such as a water bottle, a hat or a T-shirt, to show their camp spirit.
“We saw a gradual rise in the number of packages in recent years,” says Michelle Mauldin, the girls’ camp director. “We have heard from other camps that they changed their policy because of the number of packages, as well as pressure that parents felt to send packages to not just their child, but to all of the children in the cabin, because other parents had begun sending packages to the entire cabin.”
So, she says, the camp welcomes families to send letters and emails instead. Camp directors can’t promise, however, that their campers will write back.
Erin Silver is a writer and blogger based in Toronto, Canada. Visit her at erinsilver.ca.
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