Welcome to Camp Stress

Aggressive promotion. Thousands of dollars a week. And more confusing options than ever. When did sending your kid to sleepaway camp become the most dreaded part of the summer?

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

My awestruck eight-year-old son and I sit side by side, watching a video that rivals something from Pixar. There’s action, adventure, and cinematography that would make Steven Spielberg weep.

No, we aren’t at Showcase SuperLux. We’re in our living room, screening an 11-minute marketing promo from Camp Manitou, a boys’ sleepaway camp in Maine. The video—soundtracked to pop music such as the American Authors’ hit “Best Day of My Life”—sweeps over rolling pastures, plunges into sun-splashed lakes, perches us atop water skis, and places us on verdant baseball diamonds.

In one scene, we watch a College League intra-camp competition, where boys split into teams named after colleges and led by staffers called deans are tugging on ropes and brawling on a football field. It’s like ESPN meets ancient Greece and is a centerpiece of Manitou’s programming. My son is hypnotized, and so am I. “College League taught me how to compete, it taught me how to care, it taught me how to lead, it taught me how to be a good teammate, it taught me how to speak,” says a camper in one of the testimonials interspersed throughout the movie. “And I knew from when I was nine years old that I wanted to come back here until I was 20 to lead one of these teams.”

My second grader—who doesn’t know what he wants for dinner, let alone what he wants to do at 20—absorbs the whole thing, mouth agape, eyes wide open. When the movie ends, I do the only reasonable thing I can think of: I request more information. Within an hour, my phone buzzes. It’s Camp Manitou, welcoming me. Am I ready to sign my boy up? Hell, I’m ready to enroll myself. But hold on for just a minute.

My son has another year before we’d really consider sleepaway camp, though as anyone who’s gone through the process before will tell you, it’s best to start early. As I’ve tentatively waded into the selection process, I’ve heard tales that sound more intense than the college admissions routine: One friend remembers a director visiting her home (a relatively common practice, it turns out); the director promised that her son would be primed for the right professional networking opportunities should he choose to roast marshmallows at this camp. Lovely, though her son is in elementary school.

Someone else tells me about Blade, an über-pricey private jet service that offers flights for camp tours and visiting days, sparing New York–based parents the arduous New England drive. Later, I prowl the Maine Camp Experience, a searchable database and “Campcierge” service that links families with the right camp. It also highlights future outcomes for attendees. “Maine campers attend some of the most prestigious colleges and universities,” according to the site, which is peppered with photos of Ivy League schools. Gulp. I’d always envisioned sleepaway camp as rustic bunks, campfire songs, and bug bites.

Nowadays, though, as we meticulously engineer our kids’ schedules (and lives), from classes and practices to piano lessons and homework, the modern summer has taken on extra gravitas. New England camps have recognized that. So have parents. There are more options, more marketing tactics (swag bags! lobster dinners!), and more stressful rules to navigate when it comes to applying than ever before. There’s also more expense, with some programs running upward of $10,000 for the summer. As I leaf through glossy brochures of kids living their best and most productive lives, I’m torn between aspiration and skepticism: Is this really worth it?

Back in the 1980s, I attended a playground camp down the street from my house. There, bored teenage counselors read Sassy magazine while kids made friendship bracelets, and I turned out more or less fine. Of course, I came of age in an era when summer camp was rom-com fodder—more Meatballs and Little Darlings than TED talk. The pressures were less: Students and parents weren’t scheduled within an inch of their sanity, and summers weren’t fastidiously hashtagged on Instagram. My main goal was to get a tan and convince my mom to buy me a pink Esprit tote bag.

Flash-forward a few decades, and camp has become an $18 billion industry, with 8,400 resident camps in the United States alone. This summer, millions of kids—and adults—will attend. Many want to do so in New England, where some 300 American Camp Association–accredited overnight programs are, like boarding schools, designed to appeal to discriminating parents as much as to kids (farm-to-table s’mores, ninja lessons, sushi-making classes, aeronautical engineering courses). Good thing my family already lives here.

That’s where the convenience ends, though. After soaking in dazzling marketing videos, the next step is to hire a consultant—a matchmaker of sorts—who can pair my child’s budding personality with the best camp experience. That means sharing summertime goals, interests, and hobbies in writing and during a phone call. Next, the consultant sends off a list of curated recommendations, advising on the hottest camps of the year, which spots attract kids from which areas (in case you want your progeny far from—or near—their pals), and the overall personality of each camp. This is usually followed up with several more calls to narrow down choices. Some consultants work at no cost to parents, instead relying on commissions or referral fees from their many partner camps to pay the bills.

These consultants serve as translators and soothsayers for families, having logged hours touring each camp so they can speak reliably about its strengths. Rugged or luxurious? Competitive or mellow? Who knows? They do, and they cater to a plugged-in, busy clientele who want answers. “We have millennials sending kids to camp, so the interactions have to be much different,” explains Lauren Nearpass, cofounder and “chief happy camper officer” of Summer 365, a consulting service that helps families wade through videos and viewbooks to pinpoint the optimal summertime experience. Nearpass, it turns out, is something of a legend in the business. “You have to work with Lauren. She saved us,” more than one parent whispered to me.

Of course, that’s just the first step in a very long process. Once you’ve narrowed down the options, it’s time to take a road trip. I’m told most parents call in late winter—a year and a half before they want to enroll their little explorers—to book two-hour personal tours in June through August. That way they can get their applications in by autumn for the following summer. By and large, admissions are first-come, first-serve—no early decision or waitlists. But sometimes hometown matters, too. “There are some camp directors who are very discerning about how many [campers] they take from certain ZIP codes,” says one camp consultant. “They want diversity, and I don’t mean racial. They like to say, ‘We have campers from Maryland or Florida.’”

Experts recommend visiting no more than four camps, lest you become overwhelmed. Oh, and you might: Many camps “have welcome centers, like the greenroom before you go on TV—beautiful couch, sitting room, literature, beverages, snacks and toys, swag bags,” says Susan Pecker, a consultant with the Camp Connection. Newton’s Erica Fine and her husband toured a half-dozen places, and it was an eye-opening experience. “One camp had heated pools, giant luxury golf carts if kids didn’t want to walk around, a circus trapeze, a treehouse bigger than the cabins with electricity…. And the kicker? Every summer, campers got a litter of puppies and could enter a lottery to bring one home,” Fine says. “We were hysterical. This isn’t camp; it’s a country club.” At another camp, her child was offered a free summer if he could hit a hole-in-one on the golf course. This didn’t have the intended effect; she was put off by the pushiness. At yet another place, parents received a welcome lobster lunch.

Back at my house, though, we’re still processing Camp Manitou’s Oscar-worthy marketing film. After we watch the trailer, my son bounds off to play video games, but I’m still glued to my laptop. Self-confidence? Character-building? Independence? Plus water skis and computer animation classes? I spend the next two hours sucked into an online wormhole of aspiration—taken in, and not completely sure why.

Maine’s Camp Laurel is home to a state-of-the-art, 1,800-square-foot digital recording studio with a vocal booth, an FM radio station, an indoor movie house, and a 2,500-square-foot dance center. At New Hampshire’s Camps Kenwood & Evergreen, kids are trained in instruments from African drums to electric bass by professional musicians. They form bands to perform in a music festival, Hollowpalooza, recorded by a sound engineer. Tripp Lake Camp, also in Maine, has a culinary arts studio modeled after a commercial kitchen and overseen by a professional chef, where campers whip up stir-fries, tortes, and cakes to serve at dinner. I’m most partial to Pennsylvania’s Pine Forest Camp, though, where young residents enjoy an avocado toast bar—admirably on-trend—a dim sum buffet, gluten-free pizzas, and luaus.

Regardless of the fancy amenities, I’m glad to hear there are certain things about camp that haven’t changed. At Brown Ledge, an overnight girls’ camp in Vermont, kids sit down for three 45-minute meals and have—gasp—face-to-face conversations with their peers. It’s an adjustment, says camp codirector Kim McManus: “What’s different now is the impact of rapid technology and how it affects [kids’] social development. We definitely see some kids who are socially delayed…when it comes to working out problems with peers. They can ignore problems with their virtual friends, but not with the bunkie who you’ll see an hour later.” My mind flashes to my eight-year-old, whose face is about to turn permanently blue from the glare of his iPad.

Dress codes are also a reassuring equalizer. “I knew I really wanted a uniform camp. It removes the pressures of fashion, trends, and materialism,” Julie Brandon, a Holliston mom whose daughter is going into her fourth summer at camp, tells me. “Everybody’s the same, and it becomes about who you are rather than what you have. It also puts everyone on an even playing field.” Another parent remembers her daughters’ obsession with Sugarlips tank tops. “All the girls from New York will have them!” she cried. Yes, they opted for a uniform-only camp, too.

But for all of the families who find New England’s pricey overnight camps enriching, it’s important to remember that luaus and dim sum do not guarantee a blissful summer. Take Arlington’s Mimi Wan, who spent roughly $10,000 on a three-week summer camp for her then-10-year-old. “She’s an only child, so we were willing to do this. We really wanted her to have that experience where you make friends all over the country,” she says. “There were these beautiful websites of girls water-skiing, crafting, cooking. Friends said, ‘You have to start early!’ It was completely overwhelming. I was struggling with the cost.” She and her husband settled on what seemed like the right fit for their quiet daughter but became nervous when a celebrity chef rolled up with his children at drop-off day. “My husband and I were like, ‘We’re in the wrong place. These aren’t the circles we move in,’” she says, laughing.

Despite their planning, their daughter didn’t make friends; she spent the three weeks being homesick. The following summer, they enrolled her in a less expensive Girl Scout camp, where they immediately bonded with other families and which their daughter loved. “I think there was just less pressure and expectations,” Wan says.

This isn’t to say that cheaper camps are wholesome and fancier ones are a farce. It’s all about fit—and finding that fit is, as I’ve discovered, a stressful process. Thankfully, I have time to stew on it (and to save up). Right now, my son is slated to go to his usual day camp for one more year, and I have a few more months before I need to begin fending off sleepaway camps in earnest. In the meantime, I’ve bookmarked my favorite sites and safely stashed a few glossy viewbooks in my office for further perusal. Sometimes, when I’m procrastinating, I take them out and gaze. Do I want him to make the right connections? A small, striving part of me does, I’ll admit. Do I want him to learn to prepare sushi or record a professional-quality album? Of course. I want to give him every experience I can.

But I also realize it’s not the amenities that matter. Not really. Parents operate in a world where we feel increasingly powerless, a world with intense academic pressures—not to mention increased rates of childhood depression and anxiety—that many kids just aren’t equipped to handle. Despite all the stress and hard work it takes to get there, camp, I’ve found, is still the antidote to that. It’s the last bastion of innocence and shelter, a place for children to explore with a safety net and for parents to feel some modicum of relief. I’m not taken in by a dim sum buffet; I’m taken in by the promise of suspended reality. What I think I’m trying to buy—what so many of us are trying to buy—is security and peace of mind, even for a few weeks.

And these days, that’s priceless.