There is nothing quite like picking up a child from summer camp. I watched thousands of parents do this over the years that I worked at various camps, and now I get the chance to do it myself when I pick up my own children. I am convinced that there is really only one thing that parents look for when they show up at the end of the week: a smile on the face of their child. They search the crowd of campers, scanning each face for the one that they are seeking: the face that disarmed them in the birthing room or at the adoption center, the face that has melted their hearts over and over in moments of frustration, the face of the one for whom they would lay down their own lives.

Is she safe? Did he have a good time? Parents can tell with a single glance.

It is funny that I needed research data to tell me this because the truth has always been right in front of me. I simply never stopped to consider it. We surveyed nearly 400 parents two weeks after camp as part of the Effective Camp Research Project, and the findings suggest that if their child was safe and smiling at the end of the week, parents rated the experience as a whole at least an 8 out of 10.

These high ratings included parents that expressed concerns about the camp facilities, parents who critiqued the program quality, a parent whose child suffered a broken bone, and even a parent whose child came home with head lice! (Have you ever dealt with head lice? Gross!)

For some parents, it is the longest they have ever been away from their child. Their primary concern is their child’s safety. The horrific stories about abductions, bullying, and violence against children are in our daily news feeds, and many of us parents grew up watching Jason Voorhees butcher children at Camp Crystal Lake (I even dressed up as him for Halloween one year!). It feels like a profoundly unsafe world to let our children out of sight for a second, much less a whole week. So when parents are scanning the crowd of campers, the first concern is that their child is there and not lying in the woods somewhere. The immediate secondary concern is their child’s disposition. Even for the camp regulars, there is a certain level of anxiety about what they will see in their child’s face. Will they look disappointed or sad? Will they be standoffish from their cabin mates because they did not make any friends or were picked on? Parents will judge the experience with a single glance.

Closing program at Sugar Creek Bible Camp, 2016. I see my child’s face!

They usually spot their child from a distance, perhaps at a closing program or through a crowd of people. There she is! (Thank God, she did not get hurt or sick or drowned in the lake.) He is talking to someone and laughing! (Thank God, he didn’t hate it. He might have even liked it! And he even made a friend – bonus!) The experience is rated a 9 or a 10 based on this first glance. My child is safe and happy. Anything else is simply a bonus.

Camps across the country promise life-changing experiences or transformation. Here’s the thing from a parent’s perspective: I did not entrust my child to you so that you could change him. I love my child just the way he is. If I wanted a transformation, I would have sent him to an intervention camp that specializes in targeted changes.

I sent him to you because I believed that an experience away from home would be good for him, and I was on board with the main message of your camp. You are my partner. I am raising my child the best I can, but I know that I need help. Help my child get a little perspective on life or try something new. Help him learn about God and faith because I’m not always very good at that. But don’t send me a new child. Send me the one that I love in one piece and with a smile on his face. If you bring him to harm, I will tear you apart like a mama bear. If he does not have a good time, I will never set foot on your cursed property again.

Hundreds of the parents in the camp survey noticed significant and lasting positive changes in their children after camp. These were all bonuses, in many cases unexpected. My child is more polite. My child wants to pray around the dinner table. My child is more confident in herself. Thank you for reinforcing these values that we try to teach our children. We came for the smiles, and we received so much more! We appreciate the partnership.

Oh, and we’ll be back next summer.