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Image: Malia Obama
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
President Barack Obama's daughter Malia Obama is off taking part in a classic American tradition: summer camp.
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updated 7/29/2010 9:30:10 PM ET 2010-07-30T01:30:10

She's had a front row seat to history for a year and a half, meeting heads of state, touring the Kremlin, flying around the world on Air Force One, being serenaded by Paul McCartney and enjoying command performances from the Jonas Brothers.

But there's one thing Malia Obama hasn't done, until now, her dad says, and it's a rite of passage countless kids have experienced: a summer at camp, bunking with a bunch of other girls in a wooden cabin or tent, sharing chores, swatting away mosquitoes and giggling the night away.

It's a wonderful time — lumpy cots and all — say advocates of the camp experience, who are thrilled with the presidential decision to let Malia partake in a classic American tradition.

"We're proud, and very pleased for Malia," says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. "Education and learning has been something that the president has talked a great deal about, and we see camp as a great learning environment. We're sure she'll have a great experience."

As many parents can tell you, camp is a rite of passage for the parents as much as the camper. "I may shed a tear," the president said in a recent interview on NBC News.

No talking to parents while away
If he hasn't already, he may shed that tear during the first couple weeks, when — unless there's an exception for the leader of the free world — parents often cannot speak to their child. In most camps, there are strict rules governing communication with home, designed to help the child adjust.

Parents can write letters, of course, or perhaps send e-mails or faxes to be printed out. As for the campers, they usually can only write letters. And cell phones are almost always forbidden.

"The policies vary, but they all say, give your kids a chance to adjust," says Smith.

But often it's harder for the parents to adjust. So if the Obamas do succumb to what Smith calls "parent-kid sickness" — the parental form of homesickness — they should know that many camps have employees on call to reassure them.

"Camps are used to fielding calls from parents," says Smith. "There's been a huge increase in those calls over the last decade. Parents today are so involved in their kids' lives. Their expectations have grown, especially in the digital age."

And what if the camper's homesick? That's extremely common, though only 7 percent of cases are serious enough to require intervention like calling the parents, according to the camp association.

"Counselors and staff are trained to deal with it," says Smith. "They play icebreaker games, and keep the kids busy and involved. The kids come home feeling more resilient, more independent, more self-confident."

Image: Barack Obama, Sasha Obama, Malia Obama
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Barack Obama walks with daughters Malia, left, and Sasha on Jan. 4 as they return to the White House in Washington after a vacation in Hawaii.

That could be especially important for a celebrity camper who necessarily leads a protected life, as hard as her parents try to keep it normal.

"Camps are communities where everyone matters equally," says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist who regularly works with summer camps, where she has encountered a number of children of celebrities. "It may be a challenge at first for everybody to be calm. But once people get over the initial buzz, it's all about camp."

Famous campers
If famous people often send their kids to camp, many have also attended themselves. A list maintained by the ACA of celebrities who've attended camp in their lifetimes (sleepaway or daytime) includes Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Chevy Chase, Keira Knightley and Natalie Portman; Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill; author J.D. Salinger and musicians like Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Gwen Stefani.

There's also Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her retired colleague, Sandra Day O'Connor; former presidents George W. Bush and Gerald Ford; Nancy Reagan, and Prince Albert of Monaco. Even Albert Einstein was once on staff, according to the list — and so was Michelle Obama (she was a camp counselor.)

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The only presidential child on the list is Chelsea Clinton, who attended U.S. Space Camp in Hunstville, Ala., when her dad was in office.

Having a presidential child on hand would seem to provide some interesting logistical challenges, but camp officials say they've seen a lot of it before.

"Camps are quite used to managing whatever unique circumstances a camper might bring," says Smith. "The sign of a good camp is that you don't see those things."

More important, say many who've been through it, is that camp is a unique place where, for a month or two, a young person can reinvent him or herself.

"I know some children of extremely public people, and for them, going to camp is an opportunity to be who THEY are, and not their parents' child," says Steiner-Adair. "There are very straightforward values: Help the other fellow, everyone matters, be a good sport, play for fun. Who you are, what you own, and where you come from is less important."

"I think Malia's parents have chosen very wisely."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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