Letting Our College Freshman Work at Summer Camp Was the Best Decision We Made as Parents

Our son was home for winter break during his freshman year at Indiana University when my husband and I asked him if he would start looking into summer internships. “I’m working at camp,” Jake said as if we were fools to think otherwise. 

Camp was Camp Horseshoe, an idyllic spot in northern Wisconsin where Jake had spent his summers since he was nine. For eight weeks each year, he left technology at home and lived in a rustic cabin, surrounded by 250 other boys and caring staff. He played sports, went camping, swam in a lake, and was dazzled by the stars.

My son was always comfortable at camp

Our son, who was filled with so much anxiety at home that he would rather strike out standing than swing a bat in little league, who would rather be confused in class than raise his hand to ask a question, who would rather stay home and play video games than text a friend for plans…this child was completely comfortable in his skin at camp. The camp director thought we were out of our minds when we described Jake as anxious. That was not the kid they knew. 

We loved that Jake loved camp, but we also wanted him to get a real job. There’s a time to grow up and leave camp behind. A time to use all that you’ve learned at summer camp and apply it to the real world. Jake was attending one of the best undergrad business schools in the country. His classmates would be getting internships, making connections, and gaining experiences that would help them land jobs upon graduation. We didn’t want Jake to be left behind. 

We said all that to him, and he said, “It’s okay; I’m gonna work at camp.” 

My son always felt most comfortable in his own skin at camp. (via Brenda Ferber)

We could have put our foot down and insisted that our son find a “real” internship

I suppose another parent would put their foot down and insist that enough was enough. Maybe even make some calls on behalf of their son to help get the internship ball rolling. But that was not our style. At least not when it came to Jake. His superpower was knowing exactly how to get the attention off of him and onto something or someone else.

With a twin sister who was loud and dramatic and a younger brother who had a lot of feelings a lot of the time, it was easy for Jake to fly under the radar. He also prided himself on being a go-with-the-flow kind of person, and from my vantage point, that’s what it looked like. He let the current push him along, and he enjoyed the view all the way. If camp had offered him a job already, which meant he didn’t have to write a resume and apply for an internship, that boy would be working at camp no matter what his father and I wanted. 

As a camper, Jake had earned the honorary name Joyful Sun, and I couldn’t help but think of him as Joyful Son because he was, even at home, with his anxiety. He was the easiest of our three kids. He avoided anything that could cause him emotional discomfort or embarrassment, but he did it in such a way that you barely noticed it was happening.

He was like a mischievous magician, distracting us with his quick-witted humor and kind nature. We checked off Jake in the same way all his teachers did. A polite and cute kid who was athletic, had friends, and got good grades? Nothing to see here. Better pay attention to the loud, misbehaving, needy kids instead. 

That’s not to say we didn’t worry about Jake’s shyness, anxiety, or inability to talk about emotions. We did. We took him to therapy a couple of times. Still, when he was unable to identify any feelings, unable to say anything beyond, “I don’t know,” or “I guess,” the therapist said, “He’s not really a candidate for talk therapy.” 

Jake went about life, laughing or hiding, depending on what worked best. 

As a camp counselor, our son learned a host of important social skills

When he was seventeen, during his first summer as a counselor, the camp director taught him how to greet campers and parents. He learned to give them a warm smile, eye contact, and a handshake (for the parents) or a fist bump (for the campers). He learned how to tell them something about himself and how to introduce them to someone else.

Jake learned these skills in a way he would never have been able to master had he not been in his happy camp environment and had the other new counselors not been learning it at the same time as him. We saw him use those skills outside of camp as well. Camp was good for him. We knew that. Who were we to make him leave that setting and get a business internship? 

So, he spent another summer working at camp. 

It kept going like that. Even after Jake dropped out of college. Even after he spent several months wandering around Europe by himself, trying to figure out his next steps. Every summer…camp. 

My husband and I worried. How was Jake ever going to have enough money to support himself? How would he find a partner, get married, and form a family? He was like Peter Pan, stuck in the Neverland of summer camp.

His friends were graduating, going to grad school, or finding real jobs in the real world. Some of them were getting engaged, getting married, and growing up. And there was Jake, spending his summers at camp. During the off-season, he couch-surfed or stayed with us. He worked the night shift at Dunkin Donuts. (Did you know they don’t make the donuts fresh? They are all frozen!) He shopped for Instacart. He became an expert at selecting the best produce. 

We worried and made all kinds of suggestions about what he could do in the future

We suggested culinary school. A carpentry apprenticeship. HVAC training. Going back to school to become a teacher. Jake masterfully dodged all these ideas. Meanwhile, he cooked for us. Fried rice. Roasted vegetables. Sometimes burgers or grilled cheese. He’d clean the kitchen, too.

He taught us to play pickleball. He created games for our whole family to play together and online. He kept in touch with his camp friends through fantasy football. He stayed up to date on world events as well as useless trivia. He could talk to you about politics, sports, space, natural resources, and dumb criminals. He retained everything he read or watched, or heard. He was so bright, so personable, so wholly set on never working anywhere but camp. It boggled our minds.

“We know you like to go with the flow,” we told him, “But it’s time you pick up the paddle and choose a direction.” 

“I got it, guys. Don’t worry.” Then, abracadabra, he’d distract us with something else. 

Were we the world’s worst parents? Possibly. 

When I was pregnant with Jake and his twin sister, here’s what I believed: The babies would be half-me and half-my husband. They would mostly get our good traits, and if they got any of the bad ones, we’d be able to help them with those because we were experts in them by then. We would mold these tiny humans into happy, healthy adults. They would be respectful and hard-working, outspoken and passionate, smart and funny. A gift to us and the world! Isn’t that why we were having them? 

Summer camp
The author and her son at camp. (via Brenda Ferber)

We thought we knew what our kids would be like; we didn’t.

I don’t think we were alone, believing that’s what having children was all about. I see that confidence in first-time parents, and I think, oh, how sweet. Bless your innocent hearts! But, newsflash: kids are born with their own personalities.

They aren’t a blob of clay that you can mold into your vision of what a human should be. They are humans already. They are anxious or content. Feisty or mellow. Snuggly or distant. They might be comfortable in their skin or aching to get out. They might need all your attention all the time, or they might happily play by themselves. They might prefer books or balls, trucks or blankets. 

And they might be kids who grow up never to leave camp. 

It took us a long time to understand that. Too long, I’m sure. All that worry. All that nudging. All that trying to encourage Jake along the road his peers were taking. Meanwhile, our anxious, brave, independent son wanted to take the road less traveled, and we were too stuck in our ways to see it as a valid, wonderful path. It turns out our son had been paddling all along.

Our son is now 28, and he has made camp his life’s vocation

Jake is 28 now, and he lives at camp year-round. He earns an actual salary he can live on. He’s an assistant director who helps takes care of the property in the off-season. In the summer, he ensures camp runs smoothly and every kid has the time of their life.

While his friends are wearing business clothes and climbing the corporate ladder, Jake is wearing work boots, chopping wood, raking leaves, or building a giant basketball-Connect 4 game for the campers. He sends us pictures and videos of the trees changing colors, the wild animals he spots, or the freshly fallen snow. He’s a regular at the small diner in the camp’s remote town. When our friends hear about his life, the first question is, “Is he lonely up there all by himself in the winter?” 

Sometimes my husband and I worry about the same thing. But then we remember. Jake was lonely at Indiana University, surrounded by thousands of college-aged kids. Loneliness is not a lack of people. It’s a lack of connection. And Jake feels a deep connection to camp: the setting, the people, the vibe. We kept pushing him to get a real job in the real world as if northern Wisconsin wasn’t real. As if working at camp isn’t a job. Parental foolishness!

Our job as parents is not to mold our kids; it’s to discover who they are

We thought our job as parents would be to mold our children into happy, healthy adults, gifts to the world. How wrong we were. The job is easier and harder than that. It’s not to mold; it’s to discover. It’s to see our kids for who they are. To love and accept and encourage them along their unique paths.

Yes, we get to model our values for them. But most importantly, our job is to let go. They are gifts to the world, but they come wrapped in layers of paper. They are as much a mystery and surprise as that beautiful box under the Christmas tree.

Jake dreams of owning camp someday. I’m not sure how that will happen, but it’s not my job to figure it out. It’s his. My husband and I are going to cheer from the sidelines, wide-eyed with love and wonder as it all unfolds. 

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About Brenda Ferber

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