Things I Learned While My Kid Was at Camp

As I mentioned on Monday, Caroline is at Girl Scout camp this week. The weirdest thing for me is not even being able to talk to her. Camp is one of the last experiences in which parents and children are in complete radio silence from one another. Robert and I went overseas several years ago, and were on an island inhabited by 200 people, and still we talked regularly to the girls. (James was in utero.) Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great and necessary, just weird.

Some other random thoughts I’ve had this week as I think about her often, miss her very much, but feel confident that it will be the experience she needs to have.

Notice I didn’t say I was confident she would have a good time. I’m not confident of that. This is her first camp experience, so we’re in uncharted territory. The odds are in her favor, though. And that’s the calculation we made when we (and she) decided she was ready for a week of camp: she loves Girl Scout activities, she has been camping a few times and likes it, she’s been away from us overnight many times, and it’s a water- and swimming-themed camp, which is her thing.

Not to mention that the Girl Scouts have been at this for almost a hundred years.

But it’s true. She may have a not-great time… and it will still have been an important experience for her. She will have learned that you can have a not-great time and it will not kill you. That bad times come to an end and she can survive them. And as long as the week might have seemed, she will know that her parents will be there at 8:15 on Saturday morning to fetch her and to hear all about it.

I am certainly not rooting for a not-great time, but aren’t those fantastic lessons to learn? That you can survive a nasty girl in your cabin, or chigger bites, or food that’s not your favorite, or homesickness, or the bad thunderstorm we had on Monday?

I say this because not everyone I’ve talked to this week has been supportive. “A WHOLE WEEK!?!?” one mother shrieked when I told her. Geez, you’d think we were sending her to Glass-Chewing and Chainsaw-Juggling Camp. Another was relieved to hear that the camp was so close by should something go wrong. Then there was the mom who told me about the friend-of-a-friend whose kid had to be picked up because she wouldn’t eat. Or the kid whose parents had to pick her up because she cried constantly with homesickness. And look, it does have to be an individual decision with your own kids’ personality in mind. But really? Those aren’t horror stories. Those are stories of taking a risk and realizing it wasn’t the right time or the right fit. Those are learning experiences. You can make all the right calculations and things still go wrong. I say it’s better to take a chance.

Remember this Atlantic article about parents who smooth over their kids’ childhoods to the point that they don’t know how to deal with setback and failure as adults? (I talk about it here.) I don’t want to do that. “Will they be homesick, or could something go wrong” seems to be some people’s lines in the sand. Well… yes they will be homesick. And yes, something is likely to go wrong. And unless you think the homesickness or the something-wrong is going to be severe and debilitating, those aren’t reasons not to do it.

But here’s the other thing I realized about moms who shriek and tell horror stories:

There is such pressure around here to be the perfect parent. Keeping up with the Joneses in my leafy suburb of NoVA has nothing to do with cars and TVs; it’s all about giving your kids every opportunity to succeed, excel, be enriched, etc. So at first I heard these comments and thought, “They think I’m irresponsible, making her grow up too fast. They’re judging me.”

And they might be.

But it’s just as likely that they’re judging themselves—that they feel inadequate as a parent because their kid’s not ready and “should” be, or because the parents can’t bear the thought of their child being away from them, or they can’t afford to send their kid to camp and they feel he or she will miss out. Realizing this allows me to hear their feedback, consider what part of it is useful, and not take on what’s not.

Yes, lots of learning and growth for the mama… but I’m still running to the mailbox every day wondering if there’ll be a letter from her.

Image: Caroline’s home this week. It’s cool how close the shelters are to one another. I remember when I went to GS camp, I was in a tent that was back in the woods such that you couldn’t even see the other tents! Which was a little creepy, though I still liked camp. And get off my lawn.


16 thoughts on “Things I Learned While My Kid Was at Camp

  1. Mamala says:

    Reading this post made me think of your Aunt Chris’s gmail signature quote –
    “Let me fall. Let me climb. There’s a moment when fear and dreams must collide.”

  2. Jeremy says:

    My first week of camp was less than ideal. I was older than Caroline, 4th or 5th grade I think, and my best friend went with me, but our weather was really bad, and our counselor was an old Marine that didn’t seem to understand that a group of Cub Scouts are not Marines. But it’s also one of my strongest memories of childhood.

  3. lizperraud says:

    Reading about Girl Scout camp brought back to me all the SMELLS that I experienced when going…musty tents, campfire, dampness…all good!

    As an adult now highly involved in a high school weekly “camp” (LOGOS Youth Conference) for first time attenders it’s usually (not always) a little challenging through about Tuesday afternoon and then the tide turns. And then it ends up being the BEST experience ever (and oh so sad to be going home). So it’s probably a good thing that there’s limited communication because many campers might turn back in the early part of the week if given the opportunity. And many parents might pull them back (home) if given same opportunity. It’s good (for both) to get through that. Makes it easier the next time…and the next time…and the next time. Great baby steps before the final launch.

    Allow lots of time for her immediate return for the stories that will pour and pour.


  4. susan says:

    I am hoping that it is a wonderful experience for her, but am thinking that even the “horror” stories that you’ve been presented with are not really horror stories. Little Susie cried nonstop so the adults at the camp made a good decision to call home and suggest we end the misery? I’m sorry but that makes me feel GOOD about the experience, not bad. She wouldn’t eat so they called you? Well, yes, a child that uses that extreme of behavior to express feelings doesn’t belong at camp—that summer. Maybe next summer. But the bottom line is—you didn’t send her off into the wilderness all alone with a pocketknife and canteen. You sent her to a place where adults are not going to allow her to be too badly hurt. It’s a good, calculated risk. She might be a little unhappy (when has she had a week without at least a little bit of unhappy in it before?), she might have to make do, she might learn that camp really isn’t for her, but those aren’t huge risks.

    I’ll stop blathering. I think we all know that i think camp is good for kids—and mamas.

    • MaryAnn says:

      You’re preaching to the choir! But yes, that’s a good perspective.

      And again, it points to how terrified we are to have our kids ‘fail.’ They didn’t finish out the week? Therefore it was a ‘waste’ or a ‘mistake.’ Not necessarily. And this attitude does not serve the kids well. (It’s also a pretty high bar for camp personnel to have to clear.)

      It was fun to drop her off on Sunday because I realize how much of this they have down to a science. I remembered many aspects of the experience from when I was a kid. Other things have changed and improved.

      Here’s where I depart from some of the worriers: if she doesn’t have a wonderful experience, it will be for reasons of temperament and dumb luck, not negligence on the part of the adults. That’s a risk we should all be willing to take, because the benefits are so great. (Some of the comments I heard could be boiled down to “every adult is a buffoon but me.” Let’s just say, not my philosophy.)

  5. Alex says:

    I love that article from the Atlantic. Great, great post.

  6. MaryAnn says:

    Heh… well I will get to practice what I preach, as the letter we got from C today said she was having a terrible time with mean counselors!

    Or it was the first day and raining, and things got better.

    We’ll find out!

    • MaryAnn says:

      Quick update—Susan (my authority in all things scouting, above) said it’s not a big deal to call the camp director just to see whether she got over the hump, which gives us the info we need to make Saturday morning a good reunion. Which I did. She’s doing fine. Her counselors said so, and she said as much to the office person as well.

  7. Katherine says:

    All for it. LOVED 2 week camp when I was a girl, though truth in advertising it helped that I went with one of my best friends. What struck me was the idea of actual radio silence … Seems like a lot of what I’ve read describing camps these days is that texting, daily skypes, email updates, blogs the parents can follow are par for the course. Makes me sigh just a bit.

    Bring on the postcards!!

  8. Sue says:

    Kim just got back from a week at Meadowkirk – and we all missed her more than she missed us! Now I wonder what I worried about for that whole week 🙂

  9. Kelly says:

    I loved camp! I started when I was 8 and went for a whole month in July. In Texas, most families of a certain SES send their kids to camp, whether it’s a week at Camp Cho-Yeh (a small, low-key, Presbyterian-affiliated camp) or a month at Waldemar (prestigious Christian all-girls camp, activities include Polocrosse and Charm), so the “how could you send her to camp” question isn’t asked very much.

    I can’t imagine what the moms would say about my experience when I was 10 or 11. I knocked my head into a tree, cut it open, and passed out. One of the counselors drove me in her truck to the nearest clinic, which was about half an hour away. I got three stitches. The camp’s owner called my parents, but I didn’t even get to talk to them. This was in the middle of the term, so they had to wait until camp was over to see me or talk to me. I survived, and so did they!

  10. marciglass says:

    I started going to Girl Scout Camp in 3rd grade and loved it, even though there were also times when I wanted to be home with my family. You are right that it is so important that kids have a chance to succeed and fail and be miserable and happy without their parents helping them navigate through it all. Both of our kids are off on different trips this week, without us, and while we know that “no cell phones” is the right way to run camps (don’t get me started on how cell phones ruin community life in youth ministry!) we still wish we could talk with them and hear how things are going. But, we’re counting on “no news is good news”.

  11. cathy s says:

    Claire is at Cho-Yeh this week too…first time away from us for more than 2 nights since we adopted her. The hardest thing has been how QUIET the house is…And, obviously that means that we miss her so so much. But, we both enjoyed camp so much, we just couldn’t keep it from her. I sent self-addressed notes and we got one yesterday… We are able to email her and leave care packages, but her only way to communicate with us is to write us. They are taking photos, so we can see the shots each day…and, she is usually in a couple of those. And, yes we are stalking the site until the photos come up. The first couple of days her smile wasn’t really her, but now she seems to be having a blast. Clearly, they wouldn’t post a shot of a crying child. But, as we know most days in life there is good and there is bad. My guess is she will sleep all weekend and talk about it all next week! And, she is there with a few friends from SPPC. It’s also interesting that she is actually drinking plain water out of a water bottle…and, wearing a sun hat! I guess she really DOES listen to me…even when i think she isn’t! LOL
    The” horror story/control” moms are interesting…I went to GS camp for 2 weekswhen i was 9 and came home after one week. But, it wasn’t the counselors fault. I was in a platfom tent with some girls who had me convinced that animals of all kinds were getting into the tent at night. I have never been much of a camper…before or after that experience. I went on to go to many camps etc, but never stayed in a tent again. So, that one is on me and my particular “likes/dislikes”. And, i am pretty sure that a counselor etc wasn’t going to change my mind…then or now.
    LIke you…i just miss talking to her and hearing her perspective on life. And, her giggle is what i miss most of all…

  12. sherry says:

    My oldest went to a summer program at a boarding school in 2006 because she did not want to be home the summer following Katrina. She flew there alone. After 10 days of ZERO contact, including notification that she had actually arrived, I emailed the director to make sure she was really there. I am pretty sure the director thought I was the worst mom ever to have waited so long for a sign of life. 🙂

    The summer between Myra’s Junior and Senior year in High School, she went to an Arabic immersion program at Middlebury for 10 weeks. They were not allowed to speak in English, so it was definitely a “dark side of the moon” situation. I think I got 2 postcards.

    One day after the kids are gone I will join the Peace Corps….then Myra will get a taste of her own medicine. *grin*

  13. When you are done with the current book, I hope you write a parenting book.

    I was a camp counselor for seven years, and our camp went as young as first-graders for one week. One of my most memorable cabins was a group of six-year-old girls. They were definitely homesick, especially at night, but they all had fun and no one needed to go home and they all seemed awfully proud of themselves at the end of the week. I hope C is too!

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