Togetherness Squared

Camp_Ramah_0480_IMG_0134For the last four summers, whenever my wife, Cynthia, and I have put our son, Jonah, on the bus to sleepaway camp we have experienced one of those rare moments couples share: we not only find ourselves on the same page, we find ourselves on the exact same line on that page. We see in each other’s expressions an identical mix of anxiety and relief. We are concerned about how our son will fare, of course, but we’re also free. Yes, to turn this into a very bad joke, we are free at last!

Still, our particular sense of emancipation has to do with the fact that Jonah, who has autism, is a constant in our everyday life. As we are in his. (I’m sure Jonah, once he’s on that bus, is equally relieved to be on his own and free of us.) Every member of a special needs family is well-acquainted with the joys and stresses of what is, after all, an extremely heightened kind of inseparability. Call it Togetherness Squared. All of which may explain why when I first talked to Sid Milech, director of Montreal’s YM-YWHA Harry Bronfman Y Country Camp (YCC), about a new program he’s inaugurating this summer called the Special Needs Family Camp, I had my doubts.

The program, one of the first of its kind in Canada, will make the facilities of the YCC, located in Quebec’s scenic Laurentian Mountains, available to special needs families for a long weekend in mid-August, after the camp’s regular summer sessions are done. Every family will have a cabin to themselves and be able to participate, as families, in the camp experience. That includes the special needs kids themselves, who will be accompanied by a “buddy” provided by YCC, the siblings of the special needs kid, who will participate with their peers in a wide range of camp activities, and, finally, their parents. Again I have to confess, this sounded to me, at first hearing, like a remake of The Shininga family all alone in a cabin the woods. Still, the more Milech explained how the program works the better this kind of family togetherness started to sound.

For one thing, parents will have a lot of time to themselves during the long weekend, time to enjoy the camp’s surrounding and time to spend not worrying, for a change, about what their kids are doing and how to structure their time. Milech is still assembling his staff for the session, hiring “buddies” and counselors. He also has a psychologist and a Montreal rabbi, with a background in special needs, on board. It’s the best of both worlds, Milech explained when we talked. “This is meant to be a family holiday, a supervised holiday, true. But, most of all, it is intended to give everyone a break,” he said.

Milech’s Special Needs Family Camp is closely patterned after Tikvah Family Camp, a program run by Camp Ramah in New York’s Poconos region.  Tikvah Family Camp started six years ago and Adena Sternthal has been its director for the last five years. It also takes place in mid-August, after the regular camp session is done. That’s when Sternthal makes room for 15 to 20 families, primarily families with kids, between four and 13, on the autism spectrum. Sternthal has come to appreciate how much Tikvah Family Camp means to its participants.

“Visiting theme parks and other more typical vacations aren’t always easy for families with kids on the spectrum and for a lot of our families this is their only real vacation. The parents are always telling me this is what they talk about all year long,” Sternthal pointed out. “They also tell me how amazed they are to have the chance to see their kids do things they never thought they could do, like being out on the rope course or enjoying the water. For our part, we want the special needs kids to experience things they haven’t experienced before.  We will take them out on the water, in a rowboat, for example, and if it takes two hours to do it, to make them comfortable, we’ll wait. We’re not going anywhere.”

One of the unexpected consequences of Tikvah Family Camp, and Milech expects this to be the case in his Special Needs Family Camp too, is the way parents from these families bond, develop their own unique kind of togetherness. “We provide them with connections with other parents who are in the same boat,” Sternthal added.

Then she related a recent anecdote that illustrates the impression Tikvah Family Camp made on one family, in particular. “Last year was their second summer with us and at the end of the weekend, after everyone had said goodbye, this family came to my office and asked if they could speak to me. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what happened that I didn’t know about, am I in trouble? Instead, they handed me an envelope. Inside was cash and a lot of it. They said they wanted me to have this money so another family who can’t afford the camp can come next year. I became a mess at that point. So when you ask me how the families feel about this camp, there’s your answer.

For more information on Montreal’s YCC Special Needs Family Camp, visit their website here.

For more information on the Tikvah Family Camp, visit their website here.

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Posted on June 11, 2014

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Talking to Boys

textingI can’t wait for my daughter to go to camp and learn how to talk to boys.

My parents claim I walked into my room at 13, picked up my swatch phone and didn’t reemerge until I was 17. There were concerns that they would have to surgically remove that thing from my ear. Now as my daughter is entering that same phase, I actually wish she would pick up the phone. Her conversations are all done through texts—it’s like Pavlov’s dog waiting for that bing to come from her “friends.” I wonder if this can even be considered a conversation:

Sup
Nuttin’
What r u doin’
Hangin with DK. Bball. U
At Carly’s.
Like my insta pic
Put me in ur bio
K
C u ltr

Yup, they are besties. She will see this same boy when we are out doing an errand in town and they’ll give each other that teen head tilt greeting and maybe mumble something that resembles a hello. God forbid they should actually talk to each other, especially when they’re with their parents no less (apparently, it is totally uncool to have parents—unless 12 kids need to be transported somewhere or accompanied to the midnight preview of Fault in Our Stars then it is completely acceptable).

As it turns out, this social media stuff isn’t all that social. We have a generation of kids that can barely muster the courage to call each other to borrow a forgotten text book, make an after school plan or chat long into the night pushing the limits on bedtime (maybe if we played up this part, they would be more apt to do it.) Thank God for grandparents and other relatives that still use a landline or my kids would never have learned how to have a conversation on a phone.  I make it a point of teaching my kids how to talk to adults—they thank their coaches after every game and practice: if they can’t find their size in a store, it is up to them to ask a salesperson for help and as soon as they could; they order for themselves in a restaurant. But I can’t teach them how to talk to boys.

I married one of those guys I talked on the phone long into the night. And learned how to talk to him, and other boys, at camp.  In this video we made to talk about camp one of the girls says “the girls are my sisters; the boys are like my brothers.” Truer words have never been spoken. We learned to swim together, ate together, lead song session together. Everyone is cool at camp. What made us different and unique was celebrated, where in middle school we may have been made fun for the very same thing. We learned how to be part of a community and get things done—and sometimes that included sharing secrets of who liked who.

Even if these days our main form of communication is just a text to share old song lyrics that popped into my head or just to say I am here for you when you need me, I consider my camp guy friends some of my closest based on those early years.  I hope my daughter will be able to build a foundation like this too, creating deep friendships that last a lifetime.

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Posted on June 10, 2014

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Our Common Purpose

staffcircleOur staff have arrived for training and summer is soon underway! All year long I work hard to recruit staff, interview them, and hire the most exceptional applicants to work with our campers. This process comes to a climax on the first day of staff training week, when all the individuals who I have hired over the course of the year arrive to camp and gather in our Commons. There we circle up, and I get to see the team I have worked to form.

I love that moment when I look around the circle of staff for the first time. All of these faces that I know from the interviews that I conducted, along with little facts about their lives, goals, and interests. I know them all as individuals and now during this training week, I will work to transform this a group of unique individuals into a strong, united staff team. It is a phenomenal process, one that is only topped by the arrival of our campers.

I can’t wait to see how these staff members grow over the course of the summer and work to change the lives of our campers. They have so many talents to share, stories to tell, and skills with which to enrich the camper experience. For some staff members, this summer is a goal they have been working towards for years as a camper that grew up at camp. For others, this is an entirely new experience and one they are taking on with an open mind, open heart. But no matter our various backgrounds, we are all here for a common purpose – the kids.

We are really looking forward to the arrival of our campers so that we can work to change their lives in positive ways! I once attended a seminar where the presenter said something to the effect that without our campers, camp staff would simply be a collection of very trained, talented, and enthusiastic adults with nothing to do. As much fun as we are having this week, the magic isn’t created without our campers. So enjoy your final days of camp preparation at home and make sure to fill out all of your pending camp forms! We are waiting for your children and can’t wait to have the best summer ever.

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Posted on June 9, 2014

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Packing Up

110707.CampJRF.-508 - CopyYes, 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.

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Posted on June 6, 2014

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Camouflaged Education

photo2How could I try to hide in plain sight? Well if I was well camouflaged I might use any combination of materials, coloration or illumination for concealment. In the wild I might do this by making myself hard to see in my environment or by disguising myself as something else. In terms of education I might do a great job by simply not announcing what I am doing as educational. I was thinking about this during a recent conference for the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History. Thanks to generous support of the Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations with contributions from The Marcus Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter brought together representatives from 27 camps to have their staff explore how they might animate Israel in their camps for their campers.

It was in this context that one of the fellows remarked, “I used to think that there are Jewish camps that taught about Judaism and other camps that were fun. Our camp is a fun camp. And now I get it. You are asking us to make learning about Israel fun.” All of these mostly college aged fellows came together with many Israeli counterparts to enhance the Israel educational programming at their camps. The goal is to get them serious content through activities and materials in a way that they can customize to fit naturally in their camp environment. I am confident that fellows get it. Israel education can happen with rich content and subtle complexity, but at camp it needs to be camouflaged as fun.

Camouflaged education might be the essence of Shavuot, which begins tonight. The premise of our getting the Torah was our promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. We received the Torah at Sinai because we said, “na’aseh v’nishma- We will do and we will hear/understand.” (Exodus 24:7) If we needed to study it in a formal setting first we might never have committed ourselves to the venture. There is a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric out there today, especially on our college campuses, and it gives me peace of mind to know that we can create a utopia of Jewish camp in which Israel education can hide in plain sight.

Posted on June 3, 2014

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Camp-moon!

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©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotographyThere always was the honeymoon. Then people started taking babymoons—a trip when they were pregnant, before their world was turned upside-down by a kid. Now I am getting ready for my seven week long CAMP-MOON. Obviously, I think camp is the best thing since sliced bread for all the right reasons—kids come home more independent, they develop new skills like leadership and community building, they’re better swimmers and can zipline with the best of them. They are more engaged Jewishly, may have led a service or sang a blessing, or were just in the company of great role models. And then there are a few more reasons, selfish ones, that we often don’t talk about.

I love my kids—with every ounce of my being. I love kissing their heads after they are fast asleep, I love how they cheer me down a ski mountain and I return the favor by cheering from the sidelines at umpteen softball and soccer games a year (we won’t mention the trips to the ER , really, I could live without those). I even love the late night questions. Tonight I got hit with “Mommy, we don’t believe in Jesus but we believe in Chinese medicine, right?” and “If twins are born at 11:59 pm on Monday and 12:01 am on Tuesday are they still twins?  What if those days were New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day?” (Thank you, Google for confirming that they still are twins.  Apparently my saying so just wasn’t enough).

Even though I long for all of this when they’re gone, I love sending my kids off to camp so I get the chance to reconnect—with myself, my friends and my husband. Who are we kidding? By reconnecting I really mean, eating. That bus pulls out of the parking lot, and my husband and I whip out our restaurant wish-list and start making reservations. Come on, anyone that just packed two kids for camp (while holding down a full time job) definitely deserves a cocktail. We have been waiting 10 months for this (live 10 for 2!).

So maybe it is a little more than a gluttonous journey through NYC’s finest. It is the time my husband and I have to actually have a conversation that doesn’t revolve around logistics, grades and rules for texting that we can barely enforce. We fall in love with each other all over again. These few weeks give me time to carve out real conversations with my girlfriends, not just a call them from the train to confirm that one of us is pawning off our kid on the other that weekend so we don’t have to pay for a babysitter.

Sure I miss my kids, miss their sleepy morning faces and shuttling them around from place to place. Even though I swear I won’t, I scan those camp pictures like every other Jewish mother. But I cherish the time I have with my husband.  I love not having to make a train and run through the station, praying I make it to a game to see my 10 year old pitch. Each day will inevitably start the same “Honey I can’t possibly go out again tonight” A green juice for breakfast, a salad for lunch and by 3:00…”a two-top please!  We are on our camp-moon.”

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Posted on June 2, 2014

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Teach Your Children Well

Camp_0053“The world we build tomorrow is born in the experiences we give our children today.”

Our Jewish tradition is centered on our children. On the long journey from slavery to freedom, which we symbolically started at Passover culminating soon at Shavuot, it is amazing how many times in the narrative that Moses keeps returning to the subject of raising Jewish kids.

“When your children ask you this, you should answer them that.” “Teach your child on that day.” “Say to your child …” Four times Moses speaks about the duty of parents to educate their children, handing on to them their people’s story until it becomes their own. Giving our kids the gift of identity. Knowing who they are. This is a central and recurring plank in our tradition.

How do we do this in this day and age? I believe the answer is Jewish camp, a fundamental necessity in the journey of our children to find out who they are.

Camp is unique. The world literally stops at camp’s gates. Each and every summer at camp our children get the chance to re-create their universe. Camp is “kidcentric” in a way that the outside world can never be. Camp is a community dedicated to ensuring that our children have the best time that they can. Camp is the antidote to the pressures that our kids are faced with at home. What do I mean by that? We live in the age of instant gratification, immediate convenience. Everything is there for us at the touch of a button and the flicker of a screen. We live in the “Me” age. Everything is there immediately. iPod, iPad,  iPhone (in my family IPay…). Literally, we can’t turn off our phones, and our children are glued to the devices that we have made them hostage to. Even our friendships are instant, making friends at the click of a button and deleting them in the same way. We can’t seem to leave our kids to their own devices anymore. The pull of the tablet is too strong.

At camp our kids get the chance to switch off, and in doing so get switched on to the “We” as opposed to the “Me” world. The friendships made at camp are real not instant, based on sharing and living together. Time spent at camp is like doggy years. 2 weeks at camp is like 3 months in the outside world. And the lessons learned are life lessons. The opportunities for our children to discover their talents, to nurture their skills, to develop friendships and to see the world from a different perspective to the pressurized “Me” world at home. Camp is life changing. Camp is a gift.

The Jewish concept of tikun olam, or healing the world, runs through the Jewish camping experience. I spent over 20 summers at a Jewish camp in the Deep South, working first as a counselor, then as a song leader and then as teen camp leader. I was lucky. I was able to give my wife and kids the Jewish camp experience. It was at camp that the Jewish values of tikun olam, healing the world, were re-enforced for all of us.

Camp is a place where our children learn that their actions can make a difference. A place where we can “say to our children,” to borrow the words of Moses, “that you can make a difference.”

Camp is a place where we can “Teach our children well.”

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Posted on May 29, 2014

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Why I Don’t Send “Nice” Things to Camp

©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotography“WHAT is that SMELL?”

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.

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Posted on May 27, 2014

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My Favorite Camp Clothes

©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotographyHere in New York, the temperature is eking up into the 70s, and after continuous blizzards this winter, I couldn’t be happier! This weekend I celebrated as most New Yorkers with tragically little closet space do—I took out my summer clothes. And amongst the sundresses and tank tops, I found the cutest white skirt that definitely didn’t belong to me. OOPS. You see, last summer’s camp visits brought me to southern California, and I was in need of some white clothing for Shabbat. I was in a bit of a bind, so I happily accepted when a fabulous friend (and old bunkmate!) offered to lend me a white skirt. And here we are, one year later, and I still have that skirt. (Sorry Melissa!)

And then I laughed. How many times did I come home as a camper with clothing that didn’t belong to me? I remember my mom’s frustration when it came time to do post-camp laundry and she’d find shirts and dresses that she’d never seen before. “Why do I even buy you summer clothes?!” she would say.  But trading clothing was just a part of camp life. Most Friday afternoons were spent finding a Shabbat outfit from a bunkmate’s cubby before someone else called it.  And sometimes, if you liked it enough, if you were really lucky, that friend would let you take it home with you.

Those were my most treasured items of clothing. Looking back at photos, I’m sure it wasn’t that I looked any better in them; I was an awkward pre-teen all year long. But wearing them reminded me of faraway friends and gave me the courage to “try on” something new. And though not always as tangible as a dirty shirt, that’s the important stuff I brought home from camp every summer. At a time in my life where every day was a new (and sometimes scary) adventure of figuring out who I wanted to be, my summers at camp provided a safe place for me to try new activities, practice being “me,” and yes—try out some new clothing styles.

So if you send off your kid this summer with a duffel full of new camp clothes, only to find what looks like someone else’s return, take a deep breath. Maybe those new white sheets were perfect for tie-dying, or the hoodie you bought was the latest victim of paint twister. Or maybe your kid exchanged lucky socks with their new best friend. Whatever comes home in that bag, know that they are the remnants of a summer well-lived. They are the reminders of new skills, new interests, and new friendships. They are the physical proof that your kid tried something new. And no doubt they will be smelly. Wash those things quick.

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Posted on May 20, 2014

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The Four Parents

shutterstock_140757514“Does anyone have any questions?”

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.

Posted on May 13, 2014

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