Photo by: Choice Camps

Caretaking: Who Knew It Was a Summer Camp Choice?

by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
Photo by: Choice Camps

This is the first summer that my boys are going to camp. It’s a New York thing, and I am not originally a New Yorker. Where I grew up, summer was about hanging around, making yourself useful and finding a way to entertain yourself with a paper cup and a stick. But in Brooklyn, early teenagers attend camp. Soccer camp, tech camp, baseball, math, music camp: each one offers a focused specialty, a set of skills that will give your child an edge in the competition to come.

I confess that, when camp finally seemed inevitable, I, too, was eyeing the summer as an opportunity to introduce my younger son to a new and notable talent – digital storytelling? film? – that he might become passionate about just in time for seventh grade, when every New York child must find some way to stand out from the tens of thousands of other smart, wonderful kids who are applying to the same high schools.

Instead, my sons are attending an all-purpose “summer experience” day camp in Brooklyn, where my fourteen year old is a Counselor in Training. Which means, far from distinguishing himself as a prodigy, the bulk of his days are spent taking care of seven year olds. “It’s awesome,” he says. Why? I ask him. Why on earth? What person, especially a teenage boy, would look forward to spending his free time with a large group of little kids? It just is, he says. It’s fun. They have a lot of energy. They like to hang on him, and pull on his arms, and cling to his legs so he can’t go anywhere without them. The CITs, as they are called, do get time to play dodge ball and other games (my son tells me proudly that his group won yesterday) and they also have time off – during Arts and Crafts and Swim for example – when they can go to their own counselors and do something supervised for a half hour or so. Their counselors, I am told, are also awesome. But my son usually chooses to hang out with the kids.

There is a boy who can’t swim because of an ear infection so he and my son shoot hoops and hit baseballs. A young man who is taller than his mother and a kid half his size: “You’d never believe it, Mom. He can hit the ball up to the ceiling. He’s amazing!” Or he hangs out in art class to see what they are drawing. “That’s great. That’s a beautiful picture,” he says mimicking himself as he wanders among them. This is his choice. This is not Facebook, or texting, or any of the things he usually likes to do. He tells me, as if it just occurred to him, that he hasn’t logged onto Facebook in the past three days. Who knew that my son would find his best summer experience, not in soccer or tech, but in caretaking?

In New York City, we are conditioned to focus on self-improvement, every child for himself, with self being the center. We are transient, high-tech; we are busy. By the time school and guitar lessons and homework are done every evening, there is not a lot of time for service, or for taking care of others, or for anything except going to sleep. But this summer, in this camp, my son is practicing love. We didn’t plan it that way, but I am so grateful. He is finding new priorities. He is celebrating others. And he is enjoying every minute of what he discovers. And it is awesome.

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning (which will be released on September 11, 2010), and the award-winning novel, Why She Left Us. Her work appears in the Mothers Who Think anthologies, among others and she blogs for The Huffington Post. She teaches creative writing at Goddard College.

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wow! what an wonderful article! and what a great summer for kalei!

This is what Camp Fire and Girl Scouts and I think Boy Scouts was all about. Putting people first and skills second. Valuing people for their unique skills and personalities not pitting them against one another or some arbitrary idea of Good constantly, And building a community where everyone feels valued and loved for just being themselves...

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I think its great that he is enjoying spending time with younger kids. Instead of focusing on selfish wants or needs that most other focused camps may have, he is learning a very selfless skill. It sounds you may have a future teacher on your hands. I think the idea of summer camp should be to have fun. Its great that they can learn additional skills, but where so many people are focused on being smarter and knowing more, they are losing their human skills...

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Thank you for sharing this excellent post but more for your excellent contributions to raising a great kid, and his excellent contribution to society. What a win-win-win scenario.

As a former CIT, camp counselor and camp director, I can speak very highly of the whole experience. My years with the YMCA helped me realize that teaching was my calling. I've watched countless CITs not only gain amazing memories and skills, but give the gift of time and talent to a younger child. It is truly a magical thing. I am now director of a summer school and the student workers we hire are a serious draw for our campers...

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I didn't know camp was a New York thing... but I digress. I applaud you and your son for his attendance at an ACTUAL summer camp. When I was a kid (not that long ago!) we went to camp for the experience of being outdoors all summer, not to negotiate our way into a better school. Kids spend too much time in front of screens (TV, computer, smart phones, video games, YEESH!) and not enough time learning about themselves and their own physical and mental capabilities...

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Love it! My daughter went to camp for the first time this summer...for her, the experience was definitely a learning one, but not in the way either of us planned.

My 2 boys (9 and 11) went to summer camp for their first time this summer. They had a great time. They especially enjoyed the JL's ( Junior leaders) and the time the JL spent talking to them and listening the their stories.

I fantasized about how wonderful it would be if my boys chose to follow their example and become JL's or counselors themselves. I think it is a great way to develop leadership skills and connections.
Kudos to your son for his zest for life.

Thank you everyone for your generosity in commenting and sharing your own stories with us, and with each other. We (my two sons and I) read all these comments together. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to hear your own summer camp experiences and to feel like we are part of a greater community of caring. All best to all of you!

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