I didn’t expect to cry when I picked my kid up from camp.
When I dropped him off at the bus? Totally. I skulked past the more experienced parents doing the hora in the parking lot as the bus pulled away, got into the front seat, shut the door and started crying.
But when I picked him up, I expected it to be all sunshine and happiness.
And it was.
But there was another component to it.
See, I mistakenly expected to get back the same kid I sent to camp. And I didn’t. And that made me cry tears of happiness.
This kid was taller. His hair was longer. He was definitely dirtier (“This IS my clean shirt!” he said as I pointed out that the shirt he was wearing looked a lot like he had cleaned the bunk floor with it before putting it on.). But I don’t sweat the small stuff, and that is all small stuff.
My son had changed for the better.
When he took my husband and I to see his favorite spot at camp, he wasn’t quite sure he was going the right way. Without any prodding, this nine year old went over to a teenager and her family—people he’d never seen before—and politely asked them for directions. That was maturity. That was impressive.
But in addition to the maturity, there was something else that I couldn’t quite pinpoint at first. As we kept talking, though, it made itself evident bit by bit. It was in the Hebrew words, naturally sprinkled through his speech. It was in the joy with which he demonstrated the hand signals that corresponded to the Hebrew song they sang every day before lights out. It was in his questions about what is going on in Israel now, and what we can do to support the Jewish state. And it was in his descriptions of the camp gathering for Kabbalat Shabbat by the lakefront, and when he spent part of the car ride home demonstrating that he now knew Birkat Hamazon by heart.
My son was happily, joyfully proud to be Jewish.
I’m not saying this was a sudden change—I like to think he was already proud of the identity we built for him at home. But it was different: going away to a Jewish camp had given him the opportunity to make Judaism his own—a key and critical part of himself, who he is and who he will become. At camp, he could grow, physically and emotionally, and as a Jewish individual—the person he will be and develop for the rest of his life.
My son came home from Jewish camp a taller, more mature, joyful Jew. And I couldn’t be happier.
There is definitely an amusing sub-genre of literature to be found in the letters kids send home from camp (anyone interested in a book called “Sh*t My Kids Write From Camp”? Drop me an email). Let’s just say that it is fairly clear that we no longer live in an epistolary society in which people pour out their thoughts and feelings on tear-stained pages. I mean, I did as a kid, but we have clearly established that I am a freak.
No, instead we live in the era of the tweet, in which children seem to think that three sentences, tops, can distill the essence of experience. And sometimes, surprisingly, they can.
I asked my friends who are parents of overnight campers for their favorite camp letters received from their children. None of this, note, was ever mentioned in What To Expect When You’re Expecting. Here are some of my favorites:
“Our bathroom smells HORRENDOUS. If you could please send Febreze Thai Dragon Fruit, I would love camp even more.” (Parent notes that said aroma is discontinued.)
“OMG Lebron went to the Cavs. Could you throw that poster of Lebron away. Love you.”
“Where is my package?”
“Dear Mom, I have no time to write.”
“I will miss you.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t take a picture with [sibling] because his poison oak is very contagious.”
“Dear Mom, you forgot to pack me a toothbrush. Can you bring one on Visiting Day?” (Note: Visiting Day = four weeks from date of letter)
“I have good and bad news. Good news is I found my lost flip flop. Bad news is in chess I lost a pawn and a knight.” (This was the entire letter)
“I learned how to light a fire with a lighter.”
And, my personal favorite:
“Dear Mom and Dad, Your last letter was too short. Love, David.”
I have received at least seven e-mails proclaiming that they have the GOTTA-HAVE items that I NEED to bring to my camper on visiting day!!!! MUST GET THEM NOW!!! If you don’t spend at least $100 on this stuff showing that you love your child, then you are a crappy, crappy parent! (Okay, maybe that last part was just implied.)
Isn’t it weird that we spend so much money to send our kids to a comparatively bare-bones environment to teach them “what’s really important”—and then, on Visiting Day, we are supposed to land back in their lives with a dramatic splash of materialism in the form of personalized M&Ms, autographable t-shirts and light-up, dancing toys?
Here are some of the items that I am told that my camper will go into cardiac arrest if he does not receive them on visiting day:
- Collectible small figurines with crazy hair that will dance when they ‘hear’ music. “Get the whole set for the bunk!” If things are going well, I’m assuming my kids will dance when they hear music. Props not necessary.
- Cookies with the camp name on it, or a photo of your family! Is that not encouraging the child to eat their feelings?
- Plastic crap. Okay, it’s not called “plastic crap” explicitly—it is called things like “camp name bottlecap necklaces,” or “camp name ponytail holders.” You can buy 3D stickers with camp iconography that, mysteriously, say things like “Roughin’ It!” Hmm.
Maybe I’m a killjoy, but really—enough. Without even knowing you, I’m pretty sure your kid doesn’t need more stuff, much less disposable stuff that is going to be filling a landfill in under four weeks. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you already sent your kid to camp with a ton of stuff. Do they really need a $55 candy version of their bunk?
If you’ve sent your kid to Jewish camp, the camp has done good and hard work over the past few weeks teaching your kid what is really essential. They’ve taught your kid explicitly in Jewish-oriented classes and services, and implicitly in the form of daily values. The sages once said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid.” They did not mention anything about an autograph pillow, or color war nail polish.
Your child has spent the past few weeks learning independence and joy in a Jewish context. You can augment and supplement that lesson your visiting day with hugs, kisses and words, not stuff. Not only will it be more consistent with the wonderful things camp is trying to teach your child, but it will also last a lot longer and be much more memorable.
Full disclosure: I feel like running a victory lap right now. My son, who had a terrible overnight camp experience last year, just came home from two weeks at another overnight camp—and LOVED IT. So much so, that he made me sign up for next summer. Knowing that your kid had a great time—and overcame demons of homesickness fought unsuccessfully last summer? Priceless.
And in this process, I’ve learned come to realize a few things—about sending my kid to camp, but also important reminders to me as a parent.
1. You can’t control everything.
You just can’t. You can pack everything you think they’ll need in the bag, but that’s about it. They might have a fight with their best friend. They might get sick. There is nothing you can do.
And that’s a valuable lesson as a parent—that is LIFE. They’re going to be rejected by a date or a college, at some point. They are going to do poorly on tests despite intense preparation. They are going to get sick just before the prom. As Elsa wisely says, you’re going to have to learn to Let It Go. These things happen—and as a parent, you need to be able to dig into a sense of self and self-confidence to know that…
2. There are a lot of reasons why a kid might not like a given experience; it’s up to you to test the variables.
If your kid doesn’t take to overnight camp like a fish to water, that does not mean that you, as a parent, have screwed up irreparably and completely, or that the dream of overnight camp has to die. It actually can mean a lot of things.
Just like a doctor has to evaluate the entire range of symptoms before making a diagnosis, so too does a parent have to really examine their kid—and know their kid—before determining that “he just doesn’t like camp.” Maybe your kid just doesn’t like THAT camp.
Maybe sending your dance-oriented daughter to a soccer-oriented camp because her best friend is going there wasn’t the best idea. Maybe a camp of 500 kids is overwhelming to a kid who is more of an introvert. As in all of parenting, you need to test every element of the experience before writing the whole thing off completely. This is time-consuming but is well worth the effort.
3. Your kid will surprise you.
I thought I knew my kid pretty well, but I have to say, I was floored by his answer when I asked him, “Why did you love camp this summer and not last summer?” See, I was expecting him to say something like, “Because last summer was a more camp-camp, and I loved being at a camp where everyone was an artist like me this year.” Or “I went for a shorter session, and that gave me security – I knew I didn’t have to miss you too long.”
But you know what my kid said in answer to that question?
“It was really nice that I didn’t have to go to the same camp as [my brother].”
I said that I was surprised, because I always kind of thought he liked his brother. He was quick to say he does—but that it was really nice being in a separate place, where he could be totally on his own and independent. And while that was surprising, I completely understood. And I thought it was amazing that here he’d just come back from an experience that made him confident enough to be able to admit it.
The kids are at camp…now what? Time to write them letters! But what do you write? Never fear: here are the only five tips you need to write great letters to your kid at camp.
1. Shorter is better.
The kid doesn’t want your long exposition about that jerk who cut you off on the highway, or how the copier jammed at work. The kid wants one sentence—tops—about your life, and you should make it a funny one (“Today, the baby vomited all over me—there might even be some left in my ear, not sure I got it all when I showered.”). Questions about camp, friends, etc. are good but again, limit yourself to a few per letter.
2. Use your judgment.
“I miss you so much I fall asleep crying every night – Daddy thinks I’m ridiculous, but I had no idea how much I would miss you! I sit in your room every night and close my eyes and imagine you are there with me” is something to tell your therapist, not your kid.
3. Take postal time differences into account.
Bear in mind that the first letter you get from your kid might say something about your kid being homesick—and that that letter is from at least 48 hours ago, which is about twenty years in camp time. Until you get a few letters, correspondence will be stilted. Keep it light and casual and fun: “Is the food good? Over here, Dad burned dinner last night—you were lucky to miss it.”
4. Funny beats flowery.
I’m mom to two boys at camp. I found out the hard way that they don’t appreciate the kind of letters I personally would like to receive. My multi-page epistles last summer—which were pretty well-written, if I do say so myself—might not have been unread, but I certainly didn’t get answers to any of my questions I posed therein. You know what these kids like? Stupid stuff. Cards with dumb looking pictures of dogs, printed out Far Side comics and idiotic jokes are much appreciated. I just bought the boys cards that, when you open them, a chicken dances to the tune of ‘I Like To Move It, Move It!” I am pretty sure that will be the one thing they remember about my correspondence the entire summer.
5. Postcards ROCK.
There are a ton of apps out there which make mailing your own picture postcard—that is, a postcard with a picture you’ve taken on it—quite easy. Some are easier than others. I personally prefer Postagram, which takes about one minute to do and is reliable, but others include Postify, Postcards on the Run and Touchnote. Again, go for funny—an amusing picture of small siblings will always work—or timely—like a picture of you clutching your face after watching the USA World Cup match, if that interests your kid. Postcards are great for the generation with the attention span of a Tweet, and the pictures will also double as bunk decoration for your kid. Everyone’s a winner.
“If this is supposed to be such a great experience for her, why do I have such a pit in my stomach?”
“Half of my life is on their way to camp…more emotional than I thought I’d be, but still so excited for them.”
If the soundtrack playing in your head at the moment stars “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” by Moby, chances are that you’ve just put your first-time camper on the camp bus, or dropped them off and driven away.
I get it. Last year around this time, I was pregnant and hormonal, but neither of those were the real reason that I started sobbing as soon as we shut the car doors.
Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?
1. Because your child is nervous.
Any kid going to camp, particularly for the first time, is at least a little nervous. The question is to what extent they are willing to admit it. Some just act sullen and withdrawn. Others engage in last-minute panic filled negotiations (“I won’t use the iPad for the whole summer if I can just come home with you!”). Some cry. Others hold back the tears. Everyone is nervous. That bus is a bus full of nervousness that it is the counselors’ job to transform into excitement. That particular transformation is out of your hands. Which leads us nicely into reason 2.
2. It’s out of your hands.
What your kid wears, whether your kid showers, who your kid hangs out with and how your kid deals with nervousness. For the next week, or two, or four, or seven, it’s out of your hands. In this exercise in simulated adulthood, your child will have his or her first taste of semi-independence. In our era of helicopter parenting where many parents won’t even let their kids walk to school by themselves, this can be disorienting. Which leads us nicely into reason 3.
3. You’re old.
Okay, you’re not OLD old, but you’re indisputably not the camper anymore. You’re not even the counselor. You’re a parent, and you’re sending your kid to camp. You’ve crossed over. But what’s most disorienting about this crossover is the fact that you really, really clearly remember what it was like to be on the other side. You remember what it was like to cry in your bed the first night of camp because you were homesick, and to cry in your bed the last night of camp because you had to go home. You remember being a counselor and emptying out shampoo bottles the night before Visiting Day so the clueless parents would think their kids actually showered during the previous weeks. Those days all seem so close that you could touch them, but you can’t. This drives home just how far away they are. And…
4. They’re getting older, too.
Remember those days when you were up all night burping them? When you could put them in a sling and carry them around while you put away laundry? Those days seem pretty recent, and yet, when your kid goes away to camp, it’s the first of many steps that they will be taking for the rest of their lives—steps away from you. It’s a bittersweet moment.
So no, it’s not just the exhaust fumes of the bus making your eyes sting.
Last summer, I packed everything that was on the packing lists, plus extras. You want 12 pairs of socks? Here are 15! Hiking boots optional? Come on kid, let’s go to REI! I was a zealot. I could not be found in my house without the Sharpie in hand.
Fat lot of good it all did me when one kid was homesick. Beyond homesick—he was utterly, incorrigibly miserable. For weeks.
To his credit, he’s giving overnight camp another try at his request: a different camp, and a shorter session. And as I pack him, I know now that the physical packing we’re doing is nowhere near as important as the mental and emotional packing.
He’s scared. And you know something? So am I. I’m scared of him being unhappy again, of getting calls every day from the camp about how unhappy he is. It was a semi-traumatic experience not only for him, but also for me.
So how should we emotionally pack for camp this time around?
1. Don’t avoid talking about homesickness: talk with your child about being away from home before your child leaves. Watch the camp DVD or go on the camp website together. When you talk about potential homesickness—whether your camper brings it up or you do—it’s important to be enthusiastic and optimistic.
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: “I’m so excited to hear all about what you do at camp! You’re going to get to try things that you never get to do at home.” Talking with your kid about activities at camp is a great thing. It’s also a chance to convey the message that the best way to get over homesickness is to be busy, whether it’s talking to other kids in the bunk or going out and trying waterskiing for the first time.
WHAT YOU SHOULDN’T SAY: “If things don’t work out, I’ll come and get you early.” This is a big no-no. You think you’re doing your kid a favor, but in fact, you’re implicitly sending the message, “I don’t think you can really handle things on your own.” Remember: you are not sending your kid alone to storm the beaches of Normandy under rapid machine gun fire. You are sending her for a camp experience: it’s designed to be a good time. It’s also designed to be a setting for her to learn how to cope with and handle her own problems. Don’t take that opportunity away from her.
2. Ask your camp if they can connect you with another camper for a phone or Skype chat session. This will help your kid get a real sense of what camp is like—and maybe, as a bonus, to have one friendly face that’s recognizable on the bus!
3. Tell your kid homesickness is totally normal. If you miss something or someone when you’re at camp, that’s actually a really nice thing—it means that there is something or someone about home that you love! I’m planning on breaking out my old letters from my mom to me at camp— which reveal that I too was a crying, sniveling mess.
4. Reassure your camper, letting them know everything at home will be okay while they are gone. When you send letters, even if you spent the morning crying about missing little Billy, please don’t write that in the letter! Write positive, news-laden letters that reinforce the idea that things are great…while not sending the message “everything is even more amazing without you here.”
Did that help? Are you still nervous? Me too. Feel free to send me tips! Sigh.
Yes, yes, I know…there is a woman in Manhattan who will pack your kids’ bags for camp for around a thousand dollars. No, seriously. I read about it in the New York Post here. They’ll get the “right” sheets of the appropriate thread count, as well as all the bunk-decorating paraphernalia/crap one could possibly imagine. Gotta use up that $1000 somehow.
In the piece, “social researcher” Wednesday Martin says there’s a new crop of professionals who hyperfocus on catering to the administrative aspects of child-rearing. “Women who are Type A, hard-driving, competitive career moms—that is, being a mom is their career—can hire staff, assistants, professional organizers to help them do it better,” she said.
Isn’t it strange how it’s a mark of status in our culture to outsource things? Rather than cooking a delightful dinner for ourselves, a truly fancy celebration is marked by going to a restaurant – or, to take it up a notch, by hiring a personal chef to come in and whip up magic. There are tons of industries set up so as to take advantage of our latent insecurities—”I can’t cook an amazing meal, but some person who trained at Le Cordon Bleu can!”—and, of course, our latent laziness.
If you look at camp as a whole through this kind of lens, it might even seem that we are outsourcing our parental duties for the summer.
But this isn’t the case.
Camp is a testing ground for our kids to be themselves in a way that they simply can’t be at home. Their friends, their families, and even we, have our own perceptions of our kids that aren’t so easy to shake. “Oh, he’s the oldest—he’s the responsible one.” “Oh, she would NEVER take a leading role in a musical: she’s so shy!” At home, they struggle with their regular roles in family, activities and school, and with parental expectations. In contrast, camp is a place to experiment with one’s self, free of preconceptions and expectations, and to have fun.
So why, then, do I think it’s important for kids to be involved in packing for camp, rather than outsourcing it to someone who can do all the dirty work? Because believe me, I’ve been Googling the “right” socks on the Internet for about a week now, and definitely have better ways to spend my time.
Camp is perhaps the most independent your child has ever been, up until this point. And packing for camp is a chance to teach them that independence comes with responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong—my kids are 9 and 10, and I’m not prepared to let them pack entirely for themselves. I am, however, prepared to let them do the first round and to check their work, as it were (“Yes, soap is not an optional item.”).
Packing together also provides the opportunity to talk about any questions or concerns about camp, and to address them with your child. And when it comes down to it, I’d say that’s worth well over $1000.
It’s been almost a year, yet I still can’t quite forget the odor that permeated the car as we drove my son home from camp last year. He’d been away for almost four weeks, and though the day was pleasant up in the Hudson Valley, he requested air conditioning in the car. We obliged and closed the windows. Not five minutes later, the smell presented itself.
“What smell?” my son responded. I looked in the rearview mirror at him to see his smile, but saw none. He was genuinely curious.
“Hon, is it possible that you packed a dead animal in your bag?” I asked. “Or maybe an animal crawled into your duffel bag and died there? Because it smells unbelievable.”
“I don’t smell anything,” he responded, without a trace of sarcasm. “And no way, Mom, nothing died in my bag.”
“You realize,” my husband muttered to me as he turned off the air and cracked the windows, “that means this is a smell he is USED to.”
I turned around in the front seat to get a better look at him. And was immediately sorry I had.
The boy had taken off his shoes. Correction: he had taken off shoes that I didn’t recognize. These were shoes that were gray and hideously disfigured, pockmarked by holes, stains and unidentifiable sticky things. I’m sad to say that the socks underneath them were similar in both color and condition.
“My GOD! PUT THOSE SHOES BACK ON!” I said as I held my nose.
“You think it’s the shoes?” my son said with genuine curiosity. He leaned forward to sniff them, like a patron at a fine dining establishment presented with a particularly esoteric vintage.
“DON’T SMELL THEM!” I practically yelled. “Yes, it’s the shoes! Or maybe the disgusting socks! Didn’t the camp have laundry?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But I only used it for my dirty stuff.”
I shuddered, thinking of what awaited me in the “clean stuff” duffel bag. “But whose shoes are those?” I asked. “What happened to the shoes we bought the day before you left for camp?”
“Huh?” he responded. “Mom, these ARE the shoes we bought the day before camp.”
Reader, I can assure you that the sneakers I had purchased for camp were bright blue with a streak of orange. These shoes looked like they had emerged from Pompeii. And then fallen victim to a mudslide.
I tell you this story as a reminder to both you and I as we prepare to Pack for Camp, an activity involving multiple Sharpies and often multiple trips to Target and online shopping locales of your choice. The morals of this story, which we should take to heart in these times:
1. Assume nothing you send to camp will return anywhere near the condition in which you sent it.
2. Except, in my case, the unopened shampoo bottle. But that is another disgusting story for another day.
3. Therefore, there is no real point to getting “nice” things for camp. Camp isn’t supposed to be about things anyway.
4. When they eventually come home from camp, do yourself a favor and open the duffel bag outside. While wearing a hazmat suit.
If you attend a pre-camp orientation session, or meeting with a camp director over the school year, I guarantee you will hear these words. In any audience of such a gathering, along with the cookies and coffee, there will be the following four attendees:
The Wise Parent: The wise parent is the one who has had three children attend the camp in question before for multiple summers. These parents already know that this camp is perfect for their children. In fact, they have already booked tickets for a childless trip to Europe departing within hours of the camp bus pulling out of the parking lot. They will ask questions relating to whether or not the camp’s policy on electronics has changed from previous years, and whether there have been any changes to the campus over the year. Their questions reflect their knowledge, not their lack thereof.
The Wicked Parent: This parent is usually not in attendance at such events, but when he or she is, he or she is 100% sure that their little star is going to be the cream of the crop at camp. They are positive that the child will love the camp, whether it’s because they themselves went there or they too really want to book the childless trip to Europe. They are unwilling to consider that perhaps their child isn’t ready for a full summer away, or perhaps their child has been trying to tell them as much for weeks. They have no questions, because how the camp handles homesickness is something that concerns other people—not them.
The Simple Parent: These parents have never sent their child to this particular overnight camp. They have no idea that they have to fill out approximately 1,000 pages of forms, notarized and in triplicate. They do not understand that packing is not going to be a rush job to be done the night before. They have never sat watching an episode of Game of Thrones while simultaneously labeling 300 pairs of underwear with a Sharpie. They ask naïve questions like, “Will my kid have a good time?” to which the answer is, “Yes.”
The Parents Who Do Not Know How To Ask: These parents have never sent their children to overnight camp, or perhaps have a newborn child at home. In any case, they have no idea what questions to ask. They are stunned when people debate whether or not the camp policy on iPod Touches should change—it is news to them that the camp has such a policy and, also, they also do not really understand what an iPod Touch is. They wonder why there is a packing list—can’t parents just figure out what a kid will need over the summer? At these meetings, it becomes increasingly clear to these parents that they in fact have absolutely no clue what their kid will be doing at camp over the summer, or what he needs in order to do it. Before they leave the meeting, they will take the email address of a Wise Parent, and hope for the best.