Balancing Independence & Photos

My first time sending my son off to daycare at six months old, I was desperate for any photo evidence that he was alive. When the daycare staff texted photos that day, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and thought: “okay, he’s okay without me.”

The benefits of the summer camp experience for building resilience and independence in young people are incredible. In the last decade, I have noticed this experience becoming more and more rare. Where else can your child unplug from technology and be in a space with peers where all staff have undergone extensive background checks and training?

Since my first summer in 2011 as Director, we have posted photos online for camper parents. At first, photos were taken by staff with other primary responsibilities, and uploaded when time allowed. For me, this looked like walking around with a camera, and uploading photos after midnight in my office. We are careful about what photos we post, meaning staff have to look through every photo to insure no one is picking their nose (or other compromising positions). Because this was taking so much time, we hired a media specialist in 2019 to capture photos, upload them, and maintain our social media. Instead of teaching great classes to campers, this staff member spent time capturing photos, and rapidly uploading them to families.

We provide each cabin with a digital camera, so that they can capture candid moments, and have our media specialist edit those photos before uploading, to delete blurry images and respect privacy.

We posted over 200 photos per day. And still, families wanted MORE. Industry wide, this has been an issue for summer camps. In a Washington Post article from 2019, Drew Harwell found that: “Most camp directors said they appreciate that the photos can bring peace of mind to lonely parents worried about their kids’ first faraway solo trip. But the photos can also end up perpetuating a cycle of parental anxiety: The more photos the camp posts, the more the parents seem to want — and the more questions they’ll ask about their kids.”

Summer camp is one of the few places left in the world where children are expected to unplug — a cocoon for kids to develop real friendships, learn about themselves and get a first glimpse of the freedom and self-confidence they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Will kids be robbed of that experience if they know it’s also being transmitted to family hundreds of miles away?

Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist said: “How can our kids ever learn to be autonomous when we’re always tracking and monitoring them? We want kids to embrace new experiences, to be great people, expand their social circles and take healthy risks. And we tamp down on them when we’re always over their shoulders, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be watching.’ ”

In 2022, I would receive, on average, about 5 phone calls or emails per day of parents (not so gently) requesting photos of their camper. Immediately. If a photo was posted of a camper not smiling exuberantly enough, parents wanted complete context, and to talk to their child directly. When campers were asked “why weren’t you smiling in this photo”, they wouldn’t remember the incident, and would be rather embarrassed that their families had called camp over such a trivial issue.

In order to prioritize our mission (making camp an amazing place for your camper) we want to set clear expectations on photos for the summer. We will upload three times: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – sometime before 6PM EST. We will continue to provide photos, but we can’t promise hundreds of photos each day.

As a parent, I completely understand the fear an anxiety of being away from your unplugged child. If you want to know how your camper is doing, you can always give me a call (231) 652-1184.

– Jalisa Danhof, Camp Director
Jalisa spent her childhood (ages 7-16) as camper at a 4-H camp in Florida then held various counselor positions, and spent a decade here as the Program Director at Camp Newaygo. She has a degree in Camp Administration from Florida State University. Jalisa lives at Camp Newaygo year-round with her husband Michael and son Calvin. In addition to staffing, enrollment, program planning, outreach, and camp management duties, she is the national chair of the American Camp Association Emerging Professionals in Camping, and the Professional Development Chair for the Michigan Local Council of Camping Leaders.