There are two things that no parent likes to be told how to manage—their kids and their money. And this is sort of funny, really, because are there two things that most of us feel like we have less control over than kids or money? Are there two things we like talking about (read: complaining about) more? No. No, there aren’t.
And when those two things collide, when, for example, something involving our kids costs quite a bit of money, it becomes a thing. It becomes one of those situations in which we hem and haw and wonder if we’re doing what’s right when it comes to both our children and our finances, and almost instinctively bristle against advice from well-meaning friends and family. Because nobody else can possibly understand what we’re going through, right? And, ugh, why can’t these kinds of decisions just be easier—and cheaper—like they undoubtedly were when we were kids??
I am, of course, talking about summer camp and the way in which its expense weighs heavily—and understandably so—into the decision-making process for parents. More than that, though, I’m also talking about how important it is to, well, talk about these costs and any angst that accompanies them. I think that what many parents risk by privately fretting about the price of summer camp is potentially missing out on realizing summer camp’s actual value, which is tremendous.
A bit about me: I’m a divorced, full-time working mother of two boys, who lives in a not-big-enough apartment in Brooklyn and cuts corners in a variety of different ways. I'm also someone who can’t really imagine not finding a way to send my kids to sleep away camp—and very specifically Ballibay—for a few weeks every summer. I was lucky enough to first be introduced to Ballibay via a silent auction at a charity benefit, during which I won two weeks of art camp for my then ten-year-old son.
I’m not sure who was more excited, me or him. Just kidding, it was totally me. I had always wanted to go to sleep away camp as a kid, but never did. And an arts camp? With drama? And music? And horses? I mean, it was a dream.
Plus, as a working parent during the summer, I was always scrambling to find an adequate day camp for my kids, one which didn’t require me to leave work a couple hours early. Most importantly: one which my kids actually liked.
And the thing about most day camp programs, particularly art-based ones, in cities like New York, is that they’re really expensive too. They also don’t have the benefits of sleep away camp, like, the fact that three meals a day and every other perk imaginable is provided. Plus, you know, sleep away camp meant that my son would actually be, like, sleeping away from home. It would give me a respite from worrying about whether or not his summer was fulfilling and fun, and give me a little time of my own to enjoy to boot.
None of this really would have mattered, of course, if he hadn’t liked camp. If Ballibay hadn’t been the right place for him, if he hadn’t felt stimulated and energized and engaged, then who cares? But the thing is that he didn’t just like it—he loved it. Though it’s now almost six years ago, I can immediately recall the mile-wide grin on his face on the night I came to see him perform as one of the von Trapp children in the end-of-session musical theater night.
Soon, he regaled me with tales of bonfires and dance performances and horses and swimming and card games taught by ultra-cool counselors and the delicious food he ate every day. (Seriously, one of the things my kids miss the most about Ballibay is the incredible camp food; finally not a conceptual oxymoron.) If there had been any doubt that this experience would be anything other than superiorly beneficial for him, that was all wiped away in an instant. He loved it, but he also grew from it; he’d gained an independence and an ineffable maturity in those couple of weeks.
Still, though, in gearing up for the next summer, I was a bit hesitant before registering both my sons for Ballibay. I had no doubts about the camp, but I still had some feelings of guilt, I think. Which, you know, another thing that issues surrounding both money and kids share is guilt. It is almost impossible as a parent not to feel guilty about decisions we make surrounding kids and money. And even those times of feeling no guilt—like when I realized how uncomplicatedly nice it felt to be child-free for a couple of weeks, knowing that my kids were happily occupied—inevitably leads to feeling guilty.
My guilt resided in the fact that I knew there were cheaper sleep away camp options out there, and maybe it would be smarter to explore some of those too. So that’s what we did that second summer; there would be two weeks of camp at Ballibay and two at a Y camp that was about half the cost. Probably it was for the best that we did those two camps back-to-back, because without having that comparison, we wouldn’t really have known that there was, well, no comparison.
While my older son (always a more easy-going kid) found the Y camp to be okay and “totally fine,” my younger son hated it. He didn’t like the inherent competition in every activity, he rebelled against the strictness of the programming, he was bored with the lack of creative options during elective play time. They both couldn’t stand the food.
Ballibay, though, was wholly different. It felt like a true alternative to the typical sleep away camp, and it was one that my kids fully loved. It’s become a part of who they are, really, since it allows them to have a significant amount of time each summer away from home and on their own, in a supportive space that encourages them to direct their own schedules and lives. And while the cost is not insignificant, neither is the experience they’re getting, one which is educational and fulfilling and exploratory and truly self-led in so many more ways than, say, a five-day Disney vacation would be. (And, hey, it’s not even as expensive as that would be, anyway.)
There’s no simple way for any parent when it comes to making big life choices about their kids, or, for that matter, their money. And for some families, sleep away camp—or any camp—simply isn’t an option. But for those who are contemplating it, but just feel doubtful that it’s the right thing to spend money on, I would just advise that they think of it not as a frivolous expense, like trendy new clothes. Think of it, rather, as an ancillary part of our children’s lives, the kind of thing that helps make them who they are and encourages them to develop more deeply as themselves.
There’s a cost on this, for sure—as there is on everything from SAT tutoring to music lessons to buying books—but there’s no way to put an easy value on it, because when I think of what it is that my kids have gained over the last handful of years, the only thing I can think is that it’s all been priceless.