| To Be Honest |


The kicker: Is any of this stuff making our kids happier?

Camp prices have gone up, I kvetched to my sister.

But so has the price of bread and eggs and tomato sauce. I sighed as I typed my credit card number into Camp Popular’s portal.

That was before my daughter came home from her camp reunion last week. (She’d left practically in tears because what should she weeeeaaaaaarrrr? Everything she owns, including the outfit we bought specifically for this event was neerrrdddyy.) As she showed off her swag, I understood the sudden hike in fees. Even with corporate and bulk discounts, the stuff in her branded tote bag easily added up to at least $50 — a branded watch (that no one could wear when everyone else has a Michelle watch), a logoed water bottle (Contigo knockoff — it was leaking within a day), and a fully loaded MP3 with all the camp songs. Stuff we definitely don’t need and mostly don’t want.

This problem, unfortunately, starts young. My four-year-old had birthday day at his backyard day camp. His counselor let us know she’d be giving out ice cream the next day. How adorable, I thought. Yum, I want to go to day camp tomorrow. Then I continued reading. Morah asked for $5 per kid to cover the cost. Okay, that’s weird. How much does a tub of ice cream and a package of cones cost? But the next day, my son told me all about the ice cream shop where they went to celebrate birthdays. Really? Tell me with a straight face that giving out yummy ice cream in a cone with sprinkles would not be good enough for a four-year-old. If you can, imagine what’s coming for you when that kid hits an age that has actual opinions.

Everyone knows that in Rome, you do as the Romans, and that when you send your daughter to camp, you are resigning yourself to making sure she has exactly what everyone else has, down to the right shade shower caddy (not from the dollar store, that is sooo nebby!). For the most part, personally, I ignored this. My daughter’s caddy came from Dollar Tree, and if she wouldn’t make friends because hers was peach while theirs were mauve, who needs friends like that anyway — but you get the point.

Things like the camp sweatshirt? Choosing to send her to camp means choosing to purchase another sweatshirt with a six-week shelf life. But what is up with the mimicking of brands? Why are camp sweatshirts designed to look like they are branded by Lululemon or Moncler? It’s sad enough that we’re shallow enough to believe we are worth more if we’re wearing brand-name clothing, that we identify ourselves by the brands we wear. Sad enough that my daughter would rather bring nothing over her perfectly good (expensive) fanny pack to camp because it doesn’t have the “in” logo and her friends will think she’s a neb. But when this ogling over brands comes down from the camp hanhalah? Why are we teaching our kids that this is a value, something to encourage?

We’re entrusting you with our children. And we’re depending on you to look after their ruchniyus during these weeks that we’re not with them. They’re coming to you with an open mind, eager for fun, yet ready to learn. But then you spur this insatiable desire for gashmiyus along with Shabbos and davening and friendship, and I wonder if it is worth it.

The kicker: Is any of this stuff making our kids happier? Do they enjoy camp more than we did because they get so much? I don’t see that. We had none of this, one major trip if we were lucky, a dubbed-over tape of the songs being sung in the dining room — and we loved camp. Yes, so do my daughter and her friends, but I see them spending days comparing swag, discussing who has more, and better. Which head counselors matched everything, including ponytail holders. Which camps hired the best singer. Which songs were professionally videoed, complete with that walk-on-the-beach effect. There’s camp loyalty, sure. But it’s secondary to looking at yenem and wanting to up what Camp More Popular does. My fear is that instead of dealing with it, we’re creating this generation of kids who aren’t content with looking at their own plates, being happy with what they have.

I get it, camps feel like they need to keep up with outdo each other, because if they don’t — then what? They say they have no choice, that if they didn’t show they were “with it,” didn’t take kids to American Dream, or offer a full wardrobe’s worth of camp swag, they’d have no campers. But not one single mother I polled would admit to liking the over-the-top activities and once-a-week major trips (that, incidentally, feed a need for more spending money), or thinking them necessary. So unless they’re all just parroting the party line (mine), I can’t be the only person in the world who is sick of this constant raising of the bar. When I think of all that junk in that camp bag, most of which, I’m sorry to say, was in the garbage can within a week, and consider that my daughter would have been thrilled with a simple reunion, meeting up with friends, singing camp songs, eating ice cream from a tub, I wonder why we’re doing this to ourselves, and what we’re unwittingly doing to our grandchildren.

One of my teachers taught me a very important lesson. She said, “It’s never about the principle.” In 99.9 percent of cases, I’ve discovered that she is correct. Not here, though, at least not with me. I did a lot of research over the past year, and my second kid is going to a more expensive, but lower-key, camp. It might be too late for my oldest daughter, but I don’t want to perpetuate this raising of standards and hankering for stuff. I’m in it for the wholesomeness, new friendships, the camaraderie, the starring in non-academic roles, all of which was once the hallmark of the camp experience. We are not wealthy; we’re just scratching middle class. But it is literally not about the money. In this case, the principle wins.

My personal decision to switch camps is a tree falling in the forest, I know that. But here’s what else I know. Unless we collectively take action, put our money where our mouth is, band together and refuse to buy those sweatshirts, then this camp inflation is not only our problem, but also our fault.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 879)

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