My oldest child, who will be in sixth grade next fall, has never done a sleep-away summer camp.
But this summer everything changes.
Sleepaway camp is not an experience I had as a child, but if cheesy tween movies are any indication, it’s an experience that will shape her for life. Or, at least it will teach her how to canoe and shoot a bow and arrow—possibly at the same time. Handy if she’s planning to be, well, a camp counselor, I guess. Is there a big call for canoeing Robin Hoods?
I’ll be honest with you here, the main reason I’ve avoided sleepaway camp is the cost. This summer that handy excuse won’t work because we’ve gotten an opportunity to go to camp at a steep discount (dammit?). But that’s just the obvious objection. The rest of my concerns have much more to do with my fragile parenting psyche than anything else.
The truth is, other than the potential for fun and pillow fights, I have a lot of reasons to worry about sleepaway camp, such as…
1. It’s so damn expensive. Sure, this summer we’re getting a deal for first-time campers. But math with me, baby. I have four kids and, rightly or not, I worry about fairness, especially when I can measure it so easily in dollars. These camps range from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand. Feels like it’s summer camp or college savings.
2. What if she’s too young to deal? OK, so back to the child who is going this year. Part of the reason I haven’t sent her before, and why I worry about sending her now, is her age. Along the lines of “everyone’s doin’ it, mom,” I can still defensibly say, “not everyone.” For a lot of the same reasons people abstain from run-of-the-mill sleepovers, I worry about my daughter’s maturity level and capacity to handle consecutive overnights somewhere that is decidedly not home.
3. There may be jerks that she can’t handle. There’s a funny thing that happens to tweens that doesn’t happen to younger kids. If my 8-year-old gets harassed when I’m not looking, she rats that punk out as soon as she marches off the bus in the afternoon. But when a kid leaves 10 behind, they enter a period in life when negotiating the social scene means not always running to mom. And that’s great! Except when they need to come to an adult (unwelcome touches, physical abuse, emotional torment that requires intervention), but feel like doing so would make things worse. I want her to handle jerks on her own, but I also worry that she could get in over her head.
4. I may want this more than she does. I’m so mired in camp commitment issues that I’m waiting for my child to lead the way. I want her to express over-the-moon excitement about the possibility. She doesn’t. Instead she mentions that her friends are going, and that she might like to go, too. It’s a statement that ends in a question, her voice rising at the end, as if she’s asking herself for permission, not asking me. It possible the fantasy of camp is better than the reality, and maybe my kid realizes this.
5. I’m nervous that her self-confidence will take a hit. Yes, sure, if she goes to camp for a week and all goes well, she’ll come back a stronger, more self-assured kid. That’s the theory, anyway. It’s what people like to cite when they extoll the virtues of camp. I think they are probably right, or, if not wrong, they are just overstating the power of camp. But if all doesn’t go well? I have a child who is sometimes unsure, unsteady, and prone to doubt. She sets high standards for herself and her experiences, sometimes unreasonably high. For example, when she decided to learn how to ride a bike and found it to be difficult, she spent an hour trying, sobbing all the while, with me at the sidelines saying, “It’s not supposed to be this way! It’s supposed to be fun!” Sure, she learned to ride, but at what cost? And what if camp is just the longer, harder version of teaching herself to ride a bike? Is it always necessary to take the hardest path to self-growth?
6. I’m afraid that she’ll be homesick. Funny, but homesickness is a lot like a kid with vague tummy troubles who wants to stay home from school. No parent relishes playing doctor, trying to decide if a child’s belly aches because the kid wants to stay home and watch YouTube videos, or if it means she’s going to throw up in the middle of a spelling test. The struggle isn’t in trying to diagnose the kid, it’s in deciding when to take her seriously. I imagine coaching a kid through summer camp homesickness is just like that, times ten. When do you push them to stay, and when do you come to the rescue? And when it comes to a luxury event like camp, should you push them at all?
7. There will probably be bug bites and sunburns. I know. No. Big. Whoop. But remember that this is the child who can’t put on sunscreen when I am holding out the bottle to her saying, “Here, you need sunscreen.” Ditto bug spray.
Despite all of my fears, we are sending her to camp, because the opportunity is unique and her best friends are among the campers. Though in so many ways I’m still not sure it’s the right thing for her. I want her to fly solo with the safety net that certified camp counselors and the limits of time provide. It’s only a week, after all. But my decision feels a little sour because I’m the one nudging her to the edge of the springboard.
There’s a metaphor in there about the momma bird pushing the baby bird out of the nest so that she can take flight. But birds don’t have to worry about bullies and bug bites and social pressure and, well, making the right parenting choices. Because they are birds with brains the size of seeds and no access to Internet parenting articles about the joys and pitfalls of summer camp.
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