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Parents are going to camp with their kids. Is this a good thing?

Sending a child off to summer camp is a time-honored tradition. But some parents are going to camp with their kids, hoping to deepen their relationship through shared adventures.

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been more than 10 years since Brad LeBaron was a student at Brigham Young University, but he found himself back in the dorms recently, this time with his 10-year-old son as a roommate.

The LeBarons, who live in Gilbert, Arizona, were there for the school’s annual Father-Son Camp, and Brad LeBaron later realized it was the first time he'd spent a full weekend alone with his son.

"We do quite a bit as a family, but just the two of us, not that often — not as often as we’d like,” said LeBaron, who has four other children ranging in age from 2 to 8.

LeBaron and others at the BYU camp are among parents who have discovered that, in order to spend one-on-one time with a child, it helps to get out of the house.

Brad LeBaron and his son Ryder, 10, of Gilbert, Ariz., talk between activities during a camp for fathers and sons at BYU's campus in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Brad LeBaron and his son Ryder, 10, of Gilbert, Ariz., talk between activities during a camp for fathers and sons at BYU's campus in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

Americans are spending more time than ever with their children — between 100 and 125 minutes a day, compared to 50 minutes a day in the 1960s, The Economist has reported. But that time is often accrued driving a child to activities, doing homework or housework, or in front of screens, a problem that parent-child camps and retreats propose to solve.

The mother-daughter weekend offered by Sky Ranch in Van, Texas, for example, is billed as a “purposeful weekend” that gives moms and daughters the chance "to laugh, listen, talk, and get away from things that normally distract both of you.”

And Forest Home Christian Camps, in Forest Falls, California, asks mothers, "Could you use some quality time with your daughter without the distractions of cellphones, siblings and laundry?"

Experts in child development say it’s important that children have “alone” time with each parent, particularly in adolescence. One study has found better outcomes for teens who have a history of engaged time with their parents.

Camps can provide this and also give a child the opportunity to see a parent outside of his or her everyday roles. (Who knew Mom could zipline?) And for children who may be timid about going to camp on their own, a parent-child camp can help a wary child (or mom) see that a camp "can be a good, non-scary place," said Kevin Gordon, director of Camp Kupugani in Leaf River, Illinois, which offers a mother-daughter weekend and a parent-child camp.

Some people, however, see parent-child camps as the summer version of helicopter parenting, the much maligned parenting style, or evidence that that Americans refuse to grow up. (Some adults are even going to camp on their own, without kids.)

Whether or not a parent-child camp appeals to you, it's only one approach, and there are other ways to give a child the attention he or she needs without leaving home. What's most important in a child's development is not outdoor adventures or a set amount of time with a parent, but that a certain type of relationship exists, experts say.

Why people go

Resorts tailored to families are not new, as anyone who has ever seen the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing” knows. Timberlock, in Indian Plains, New York, advertises itself as “an Adirondack family resort since 1899.”

But its email address gives a clue as to what the appeal is for modern families. The address is “unplug@Timberlock.com" and there's no electricity in the resort's cabins. (And don't think you can get around that by using a hotspot on your smartphone — there's no cellphone service at Timberlock either.)

To some people, a weekend or week without a phone is agony. A 2019 Deseret News poll found that only 18 percent of people say they’ve intentionally gone without their cellphone for one day.

As such, parent-child camps have newfound appeal for parents desperate to interact with their children without screens.

Fathers and their sons listen to staff instructions before playing dodgeball during a camp for fathers and sons focused on sports at BYU's campus in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Fathers and their sons listen to staff instructions before playing dodgeball during a camp for fathers and sons focused on sports at BYU's campus in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

In 2018, Pew Research Center reported that nearly half of American parents believe they spend too little time with their children. For dads, the number is even higher — 63 percent of fathers want more time with their children, compared to 35 percent of mothers. The sense of a "time deficit" with children is most often reported by fathers and mothers who work.

And it's not just children who are affected when they don't get enough time with their parents. Melissa A. Milkie, a professor at the University of Toronto, has found that parents who believe they don’t spend enough time with their children have more stress, anger and sleep problems.

Enter the parent-child camp, which promises to strengthen familial bonds not just while parents and children are there, but even when they return home.

In a 2011 analysis of family camps prepared for the American Camp Association, researchers examined the outcomes that parents were hoping for in coming to the camp. Ninety percent wanted improved family interaction, and 100 percent said they wanted to nurture family relationships, compared to 70 percent who wanted to spend time in nature and 50 percent who wanted to learn new skills.

After attending the camp, 86 percent of the respondents said the experience had improved relationships in the family.

That was the experience of Logan Deans, who attended BYU’s father-son camp, held May 24-27 in Provo, Utah.

Deans, who also has three daughters, took his 7-year-son Carver to the camp, which focuses on sports. “He played every game you can imagine — kickball, baseball, flag football, spikeball, basketball, dodgeball even,” Deans said.

Logan Deans talks with his son Carver, 7, after a game of dodgeball during a camp for fathers and sons at BYU's campus in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Logan Deans talks with his son Carver, 7, after a game of dodgeball during a camp for fathers and sons at BYU's campus in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

But as it turned out, the most memorable moments were the simplest ones, he said, including the moment his son stretched out on his dorm-room bed, puts his hands behind his head on his pillow, and said, “Man, I could get used to this.”

“Most of my highlights were watching this little boy,” Deans said, adding that he also was inspired by interacting with other fathers, an experience that he doesn't get on a fishing weekend alone with his son.

“None of us, for better or worse, were experiencing life as we thought it would be,” he said. “Life is unpredictable. ... But despite all of our foibles as dads, there we are, in this environment, and we're still in it, we're still trying to be good fathers, despite all of our shortcomings, to these boys.”

Similarly, a mother-daughter weekend was launched at Camp Kupugani near Chicago, in part to allow mothers the chance to "celebrate and/or commiserate with each other," said Gordon, the founder of the camp, which offers a multicultural experience for children ages 7 through 15 and their parents.

Camp Kupugani began with a single mother-daughter weekend in 2009, but added another one five years later because of demand, then began allowing dads to come the following year. It’s popular not only because of the traditional camping experiences, but because it’s a way to ensure that one-on-one time doesn’t get lost in the demands of daily life, Gordon said.

“Many parents won’t necessarily carve out that special time to connect with their children,” he said.

Other camps that offer parent-child experiences include some affiliated with the YMCA, such as the YMCA of Silicon Valley which offers camps that welcome not just parents, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; and Christian camps such as Grace Adventures in Michigan and Sky Ranch in Texas, which also want to strengthen your relationship with God.

BYU's Aspen Grove in Provo, Utah, also offers family camp from May through August. "Our team will cook and clean, so your family can focus on spending time together," the Aspen Grove website says.

Alternatives to camp

A mom-and-kids weekend camp at the YMCA's Camp Pendalouan in Montague, Michigan, costs $160 per person for teens and adults, and $125 per person for ages 6-12 (children 5 and younger are free).

For much less than that, parents who want to improve their family relationships could hire someone to come in and prepare a meal, so the family can have uninterrupted time, said Abby W. Schachter, a mother of four who lives in Pittsburgh, and is author of the 2016 book "No Child Left Alone."

Fathers and their sons listen to staff instructions before playing dodgeball during a camp for fathers and sons focused on sports at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Fathers and their sons listen to staff instructions before playing dodgeball during a camp for fathers and sons focused on sports at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, May 25, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

Schachter, who is preparing to send her oldest daughter to summer camp for the first time, said she has no interest in accompanying her daughter and is skeptical of why anyone would want that.

“I certainly have to sympathize with the notion that it’s a challenge to get what we used to call quality time with your children if you’re living in an environment where you and your children are always on devices. I get that the parent-child camp is a response to a problem. I just would say it’s not a good response,” she said.

Schachter said that it’s better to address a deficiency in the parent-child relationship by making lasting changes at home, rather than seeking a weekend fix. “Think about what the activities (at camp) are that appeal to you. If you want to be more in nature, go for a hike with your kid. How hard is it to find a park and go for a walk with your kid?”

In her own family, Schachter said she travels one-on-one with her children and she and her husband consistently have quality time with their children by observing the Jewish Sabbath. By shunning technology for a day and focusing on being together, “You do interact with your family in a different way, but you don’t have to go to camp to do that,” she said.

There are also other ways to ensure that each child in a family gets sufficient attention without going on a trip. For example, Becky Mansfield, a mother of four in North Carolina who runs the website Yourmodernfamily.com, has made the date of each child's birth a monthly celebration in which each child gets to be a VIP for a day.

For example, if a child is born on the 16th of a month, on the 16th of each month, Mansfield and her husband focus on that child, by letting her stay up 20 or 30 minutes later than her siblings, and to choose what she wants to do during the evening. Prior to going to bed, the "birthday" child gets to sit with her parents, who talk about the ways she is special, and then say a prayer for her. Moments like this help ensure that children know they are loved, Mansfield wrote.

"One day, before you know it, they will become your best friends. They will be kind and loving, they will have good social skills and be respectful. They will be confident because they know that you took the time to spend with them because you loved them," she said.

While the Family Peace Foundation in Australia has said that children need eight minutes a day of a parent's attention focused solely on them, there's no widely accepted formula about how much individual attention a child needs to thrive, said Milkie at the University of Toronto. But there's plenty of evidence to show that children do better when they have ample time with the entire family.

“Eating meals, playing games together and going places together or simply being in each others' presence can be beneficial,” Milkie said.

And while a loving, nurturing relationship is important to a child's development, it doesn't even have to be a parent, said Dr. Arthur Lavin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.

What’s critical is that the child perceives that he or she has one or more safe, secure and nurturing relationships. “The richer that relationship is, the better the outcome,” Lavin said.

A vacation, or even weekend away from family routines, has benefits for psychological and physical health, as do strong family relationships.

And if a parent-child camp helps to build a deeper relationship between a mother or daughter or father and son, that's great. "But you can get it if you don't go to camp at all," Lavin said. "There are so many ways a child can develop a deep relationship with an adult."