I'll never send my daughters away to summer camp again

Keeping children entertained in the school holidays is even trickier if you're a single parent.

I picked up the phone. Silence. For the sixth time that day. It was like being stalked. Except there was no sinister agent of sexual misfortune at the other end. I sighed: "All right darling, put down the receiver and I'll ring you back."

I picked up the phone. Silence. For the sixth time that day. It was like being stalked. Except there was no sinister agent of sexual misfortune at the other end. I sighed: "All right darling, put down the receiver and I'll ring you back."

I dialled 1471 and made contact with my heavy breather: an anxious 10-year-old in a residential children's camp, 150 miles away on the glorious north Norfolk coast.

This is the abbreviated version of our conversation:

"Did you actually do something active this afternoon?"

"I went to Sheringham. I bought some wicked hair-sprays but I've spent all my pocket money."

"Twenty pounds in four days? Where has it all gone?"

"Well, £12 on hair things and £8 on the chocolate machines."

"No caving or climbing or swimming or games?"

"No."

I had paid nearly £900 to send my two daughters on a week of physical activity and socialising with more than 200 others at Camp Beaumont. But from the moment of drop-off in West Runton one summer Saturday, I'd had misgivings.

The girls, however, were excited. Being on a private estate filled with six to 16-year-olds was infinitely preferable to a single-parent holiday with a mother who is inept and anxious about everything, including swimming in water where you cannot see the bottom.

It had been a big decision for us. But after four years of holidays where the lack of activity was balanced by endless eating out and expensive visits to theme parks, I had decided the children deserved to do something more joyous.

The standard middle-class options with child-friendly extras – Mark Warner, Club Med, et al – were beyond my purse. Also, as any single parent will tell you, there is nothing worse than being in a resort or hotel which is full of happy nuclear families.

So when the Camp Beaumont brochure and accompanying "Wish You Were Here" video plopped on to the mat, it was as if heaven had smiled on us.

The elder, Nushy, had her 10th birthday two weeks before departure. The younger, Tushy, was seven on the morning I picked them up. Old enough, then, to accept instruction and advice, but too young to make decisions for themselves. As the brochure said: "Where else can your child develop independence and social skills under the watchful eye of caring group leaders and qualified instructors?"

The phone calls started on the Sunday. Nushy was tired after a late-night fire drill. It got worse as the week progressed and jokers got everyone out of bed by triggering the alarm with aerosols.

The circus skills were a huge hit. But Nushy says she spent Monday afternoon sitting in a field after missing the call for activities. The next day she asked to do fencing but was put in the internet centre because there weren't enough takers.

The next morning I called Beaumont HQ and gently raised a few points: the alarms, the chocolate machines, and the fact that Tushy seemed to be living on chip butties. She did not shower for the entire week.

But what the hell – they were on holiday, which is a licence to enjoy junk food and be free from nagging about washing. My main beef was that my elder daughter did not seem to be helped or encouraged to benefit from the activities.

Camp Beaumont said they would see to it. That afternoon, Nushy went shopping. In five days, she did only one activity.

Yet I cannot say it was the holiday from hell. The girls made friends and loved the circus work.The problem is more than value for money. Holidays provide rare opportunities for men and women to fall into gender–specific roles. Women sort out picnics, equipment and admin, the men plan outings, games, adventures and walks. When the man is removed from this equation, so is the fun.

Camps are fine for children who already have confidence, courage and/or poise. Those needing guidance and encouragement are not neglected but neither, in my view, are they motivated sufficiently.

As increasing numbers of women find themselves single parenting, the cries of "Where shall we go?" have turned into a relentless keening. All I know is that sending the children away didn't work in my case.

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