In connected world, camps can’t cut cord

Kid-sick’ parents keep pressure on for digital access

The Boston Globe

June 29, 2008

BECKET – Little has changed at Camp Becket since the first boys came here by train 105 summers ago. The cabins, nestled into the woods, have no electricity. The photography classes are taught in a darkroom, not at a computer. And iPods are forbidden. For entertainment, the children sing songs together.

It is, in effect, a 21st-century parent’s dream. But, as it turns out, there is only so much rustic isolation today’s parents are willing to tolerate. In the age of instant gratification, where parents can contact their children almost whenever they want via cellphones, text messages, and e-mails, it is Mom and Dad, not their little campers, who are struggling to let go.

“It kills them not to know that Johnny’s on the basketball court right now, or in the bathroom, or changing his shirt,” said Bette Bussel, executive director of the New England chapter of the American Camp Association. “Parents expect a totally different kind of communication than they did years ago. Totally different.”

To accommodate these needs, summer camps, like Camp Becket in the Berkshires, are increasingly going digital. They are allowing parents to e-mail their children, then delivering printouts by hand along with the stamped mail. They are giving campers a chance to reply by fax. And they are posting photos of the children online – sometimes by the thousand – for the parents to enjoy.

“I went to the computer at least 10 times today to see if there were any pictures posted of the boys,” said Klarina Donoghue, a Dover mother who last Sunday dropped off her two sons – Dennis, 12, and Kelvin, 9 – at Camp Becket and her daughter at another camp nearby. “I guess you just want to see them smile, to know that they’re happy.”

This shift isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, said Stephen Wallace, a resident camp director at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster. Involved parents are typically caring parents. But their expectations have created more work for summer camp staff. At many camps, administrators are now not only expected to look after the children, but also to take pictures, download them nightly, and even write blogs. And with parents enjoying greater access, new and different problems have cropped up.

Parents get upset, and sometimes call to complain, when they don’t see their children in the online photo galleries – or when they see them and they aren’t smiling. John Tilley, executive director of YMCA Camp Coniston in Grantham, N.H., said homesick campers aren’t nearly as big of a problem as “kid-sick” parents. And he and others worry that some parents are missing the point of summer camp altogether.

It’s about children growing up, Tilley said, trying new things, and, most of all, figuring things out on their own – all of which is harder with parents in the picture. For these reasons, Camp Coniston, while posting photos online, still asks parents to send their letters by stamped envelope.

But in the past few years, Bussel said, a growing number of summer camps have begun allowing parents to e-mail their children, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Such companies as Bunk1.com, CampMinder, and Active Network – all founded in the last decade – have a stake in the process now, providing Web services to camps. They charge roughly a dollar per e-mail, a couple of dollars per photo, and more if parents want their child’s picture emblazoned on a coffee mug, mouse pad, or T-shirt. And parents – already paying anywhere from $1,100 to $6,450 to send their children to camp – say they can’t do without the online amenities.

“To me, it was invaluable,” said Lynne Friedman, a Newton mother who sent her only child, Corey, 11, to Camp Taconic in the Berkshires last year and quickly became what she called a “Bunk1 junkie.” “Every day I would check two, three, four times – not knowing how many times they updated the system. You have to sort through so many pictures to see the picture of your son. And when you find it, you just hope he’s smiling.”

Less than a generation ago, camp directors say, such concerns didn’t exist. In daily life, parents often had no way to reach their children and they lived with the gaps. They operated on faith that their children would be home for dinner and sent them off to summer camp for weeks with little more than a hug and a kiss, and a promise to return for parents’ weekend.

“Or maybe just, ‘We’ll pick you up at the end of the summer. Have a great time,’ “ said Wallace. “And barring some sort of problem – illness or injury – we didn’t have much contact with the parents.”

That has since changed. Wallace estimates that the amount of time he spends dealing with parents has doubled since he became a camp administrator in 1986. They have more concerns, he said. And, with laptops and cellphones at the ready, parents sometimes have a difficult time dealing with camp rules banning electronics for children.

In extreme cases in recent years, Bussel said, parents have smuggled cellphones into camp for their children, stashing the contraband into hollowed-out books or sewing it into stuffed animals. Just in case, they say. And even the new policies – allowing parents to e-mail children and view photos online – haven’t gone far enough for a few parents. Last summer, Camp Yavneh in Northwood, N.H., posted some 6,500 photos of campers online, and still some parents wanted more.

“For good and for bad, we’ve opened the window into camp for the parents,” said Jeff Weener, assistant director of Camp Yavneh. “And in opening that window, they want to see everything on the other side of the glass. We’ve actually had people ask us to put video cameras in the camp and run live streaming video.”

Weener rejected the idea. There are limits to what any camp should to do, he said. The goal, camp directors say, is striking the right balance – something administrators and parents believe Camp Becket has achieved.

There, using the Bunk1 service, parents can e-mail their children. The campers can then choose to reply to their parents with a handwritten note or – if their parents have requested it – they can fill out a blank page that will be faxed to a computer server, scanned, and dumped into the parents’ online camp account.

The campers can’t send e-mails of their own; they have no computer access. They can’t even have iPods – something allowed at many other camps. And parents are encouraged to limit their e-mails to a couple a week.

“They’re used to checking in three, four times a day in daily life,” said Bob Pflugfelder, staff development director at Camp Becket, a YMCA entity. “So having pictures online, and having e-mail being able to go back and forth, is their check-in. That’s all this is.”

Still, the e-mails pile up. In the mail room at Camp Becket one day last week, staff members hurried to sort more than a hundred e-mails along with another hundred or so letters and packages for the camp’s 280 children.

In his cabin near the camp’s 70-acre lake, 9-year-old Kelvin Donoghue, fair-skinned and freckled, was psyched to get his mother’s latest e-mail, curling up with it on his bunk and then settling down to write her a reply by fax. Colie Haahr, the camp’s summer office manager, jokes that some children don’t even know what a fax is. Still, campers like Burlington’s Sascha Fox Lamonica prefer the speed and simplicity of the typed word from home.

“Sometimes,” Lamonica conceded, “it’s hard for me to read the cursive.”

But not every camper likes the digital upgrades. Thirteen-year-old Josh Carruthers of Lexington said he doesn’t mind getting e-mails from his parents; he keeps a recent message from his mother tacked to the wall next to his bunk. But he would never want to send a reply by fax.

While away at camp for the next month, living with seven other boys in a cabin that reeks of bug spray, sweaty socks, and two-day-old underwear, Carruthers believes there’s only one acceptable way to send news home: in a good, old-fashioned letter.

“Just put a stamp on it,” he said. “It’ll get there.”

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