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.
The following is the first in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.
Do you consider yourself a savvy digital parent? While your kids are away at camp during the summer, it can be a great time to get caught up on learning about the cyber-lives of youth today. The more you know, the more you can better communicate with your kids regarding their digital lives.
The results of a recent 2014 study by McAfee titled, Teens and Screens, should be a wake-up call for parents. Some of the staggering findings include:
- 59% of tweens and teens engage with strangers online
- Cyberbullying has tripled, yet 24% of the respondents admitted they don’t know what to do in the event of online abuse
- Tweens and teens are still over-sharing their personal information, with 14% admitting posting their home address
Exactly what do you know about your child’s online life? Most know about cyber-safety 101:
- Limiting screen time
- Telling kids to never give out passwords
- Parental settings/controls and monitoring kids’ and teens’ social media activity
- Being kind online – explaining to your kids to think before they post
- and other common cyber-security issues
This is all very important, but let’s look at some issues you may not have considered.
Some virtual friends are actually strangers.
At camp your child is meeting many new friends and people. They will be expanding their social networking circles and it is fun learning about new people and their lives.
What your child needs to understand is that there are restrictions. When they come home from camp and jump on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites to add their new friends—that it should be limited only their real friends from camp.
What does this mean?
Many kids can get distracted into friending or adding people that are friends of friends—and before they know it they are connected to hundreds of people they don’t really know and have never met. Why is this not a good idea?
The main reason: your child’s future is at-risk.
Your child’s digital image is their future. His or her online reputation will be what determines their college and employment future. 98% of employers now say they will run an Internet search on an applicant and 77% of those with a negative online presence are not invited for an interview. College recruiters are reporting the nearly the same statistics—they are putting your child’s name through an Internet wash-cycle, and how it spins out will determine if your child secures a spot at a college of their choice.
What does this have to do with a virtual friend that is actually a stranger?
Adding people to your friends list that you don’t know in real life is not a smart idea for anyone, especially kids. Since you really don’t know them well or their online behavior, you risk them lifting photos, manipulating them and re-posting them on sites you may not approve of. They may use your comments out of context, or worse—you may upset them and they might create a slime campaign with your name.
What to do? An action plan for parents.
When your child arrives home from camp this summer and starts chatting about his or her new friends, it is a great opportunity for you to put your digital parenting hat on. Your child will probably keep in touch with these new friends through social networking, which is a benefit of our social media, however let’s discuss friending—now.
This is a perfect opportunity to also have your child clean out their friends list of others they possibly don’t really know. Especially if you have a teenager that will be applying to college soon— explain the reasons for this. This is not about you not wanting them to have friends, but in reality these aren’t friends—they are virtual strangers.
It is hard for children to understand this, as adults we learn with maturity that our friends are a reflection of who we are. We have to start instilling this into our children. Explaining to them that they don’t want friends that are making them feel uncomfortable because of what they post or if they don’t contribute positive content.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are full of people that they probably won’t miss. Unfriending is really painless. Visit www.JustUnfollow.com which will will let you know who isn’t following you back —or even inactive followers – on Twitter. That is a great start.
Safety is always a priority. Be an educated digital parent.
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.”
Later this month, my fifteen-year-old son, Jonah, is off to Camp B’Nai Brith (CBB) in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. He’ll stay for a full session, three weeks, longer by far than he’s stayed before. Naturally, I’m feeling some anxiety on his behalf. Or projecting, as my wife Cynthia calls it. She has a point. The idea of being in an isolated place for a prolonged period with strangers and nature (i.e. mosquitoes and a lack of air condition and Wi-Fi) has never been my idea of fun. That’s why my case of cold feet will be getting colder as the day of Jonah’s departure approaches. It’s in my nature, as a person and a writer, to find inspirational quotes that may be appropriate to any given situation. Inevitably, though, the quotes end up being inadequately inspirational. Like this one from the British writer Julian Barnes: “Time… give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly…”
I also find myself wondering how much Jonah really wants to go. Projecting again, no doubt. In any case this kind of information would probably be hard to pry out of any teenager. Still, I know kids must get cold feet about sleep-away camp, too. Cynthia enjoyed her time as a camper and later a counselor, but she also remembers her decades-old “Y” camp song word for word. The first couple of lines, alone, are a model of adolescent ambivalence: “I go to YCC, so pity me. There’s not a boy in the vicinity.”
Measuring Jonah’s mixed feelings can be tricky. Jonah has autism and he can have a hard time making it clear how he’s feeling. Cynthia and I know him well enough to read between the lines of his sometimes off-topic conversation. But we also look to his behavior for unspoken clues. The other day, for instance, my sister, Marilyn, and I took Jonah shopping to pick up some of the extra clothing he needs for camp. When he and I got home we showed everything we bought to his mother and then I put them on his bed so he could put them away as he does with all his clothing. We’d bought some pretty cool t-shirts and shorts so I figured he’d want to wear them till he left for camp in a few weeks. The next day though I couldn’t find any of the things we’d bought. I looked for them in every drawer. I quizzed his mother. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place. I asked Jonah where all his stuff had gone.
“In my bag,” he said.
“What bag?” I asked.
“The one for CBB.” And, indeed, there they were. All stuffed into one of the gym bags he will be taking with him to camp. It seems he can hardly wait.
His keenness is reassuring. Never more so than last weekend when Jonah, Cynthia, and I visited the CBB’s pre-camp Open House. Jonah was happy to see everyone, including counselors and staff he didn’t know. If my son has a philosophy, it’s cornier than mine but a lot more, well, inspirational. Summed up, it’s something like: “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” But he was really excited to see the counselors who were at CBB for his shorter stay last year. In fact, he seemed to have nicknames for all of them. “Hi, Quiet Wyatt,” Jonah shouted to one young man, who shouted back, “Hey Jonah, great to see you back!” He hardly looked like the quiet type, which was what made the nickname funny, of course. “Max and the Yaks” was what Jonah told me he calls the fellow who runs the camp’s circus program.
Jonah loves animals, especially unusual ones, so when he met his unit head, Mike, the two immediately hit it off, discussing animals from Mike’s native Australia. I volunteered kangaroos and received a look of disappointment from both Jonah and Mike. Mike seems to have had his fill of kangaroos as the iconic but hopelessly clichéd symbol of his country. Instead, he provided Jonah with a great deal of information about the platypus. “You know it’s one of the only mammals that lays eggs,” Mike said. Then he told Jonah it was from the small family of animals known as monotremes. “Like horses are equines and cows are bovines?” Jonah asked. “That’s right, mate.” Mike seemed to know just how to talk to Jonah, which was reassuring. Cynthia also found out that in Australia he was a teacher and had a class of kids with autism. Driving home, I already felt my feet warming up. Jonah and I also brainstormed about nicknames for his newest stranger/friend. So far, though, we’ve only settled on what Jonah won’t call him—Kangaroo Mike.
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.
At each of the three camps I attended, I only knew one person in my bunk the first year I went to that camp. I went to camps which mostly attracted kids from different neighborhoods, schools and synagogues. It was a chance to re-invent myself, to have a different identity. And having different girls around, who knew nothing about me, unlike the girls with whom I attended school from kindergarten on, was, looking back, liberating.
I was a “smart” girl in school but that didn’t really matter in camp since there was only one period of shiur (learning Jewish subjects) which was, of course, my favorite even though most everyone else slept through it. I was not good at sports so I experienced being really, really bad at something which had never happened in school. I can’t say that was fun but it did help me figure out how to negotiate difficulties. I admit it: I lied. I pretended I had ear aches, had my period four times in eight weeks, sprained my finger.
I did like arts and crafts and eventually I helped do scenery for the camp’s plays and then for our school productions. I also became the art editor of my high school year book a few years later.
My all-girls high school didn’t give us much opportunity to hone our flirting skills. But camp did. Apparently, I was a natural.
The girls in my bunk were much more interested in clothes than I was, knew the latest songs on the radio which I didn’t, and came from suburban areas, rather than the big city that I was from. For the most part, they were less religiously observant. It was good to be with a different group and each time I changed camps, I chose not to go to those that most of my school and neighborhood friends went to.
So it was very interesting to me that when my twin grandsons went off to camp last week, and learned that they knew 10 out of the 16 other boys in their bunk, one shrugged but the other was distressed. He told his mom that he “wanted to be with some friends, but also wanted the chance to make new friends – because that’s what camp is all about!”
I was surprised that he really “got it.” That camp is, indeed, an opportunity to stretch, to get to know different kids, try different things, form new friendships.
But I don’t think he yet realizes that meeting new people helps you meet yourself in a different way, too.
My life is as a voyeur. In fact, social media has turned us all into complete voyeurs. We follow blogs of people we have never met, are cheerleaders for Team Ethan, and wait for the next post from Superman Sam’s mom. Who hasn’t clicked on the Facebook page of the first person that broke their heart way back when? Not to mention trying to keep up with the Instagram pages of our kids and their 617 friends. Oh and all those beautiful “how to get beachy waves” tutorials—I keep watching, and it ain’t working. And, it is about to get much worse…
I am about to become the biggest voyeur of them all. It’s time for camp pictures. Every year I promise myself that I am not going to be tied to my CampMinder, the pictures can wait until morning. Yet once my kids leave, every night as it nears 10pm, I find myself reaching for my phone, the iPad, or fighting my husband for the computer to catch a glimpse of my smiling girls at camp. Or at least a pic of a kid in a t-shirt that I think could possibly belong to one of my kids (that means they have friends, right?), or a corner of one of their towels as they zip by the background of the picture (if they are wrapped in a towel, they aren’t lost on the lake), or a lost flip-flop that found its way into a picture (inevitably, things won’t make it home).
I am a pro at this. I preach it: camp is the best thing to happen to kids since, well, ever. I know they are having the time of their lives and there is no greater gift I could give them. I also know the camp sifts through the pictures before posting them so even if there was one of someone having a questionable moment, I would never know it from the 548+ images posted each night. Yet, I just need to see one picture.
I’ve made some progress though. The first year my daughter was at camp, I would wake up at 2am and look at the pictures through very sleepy eyes if they weren’t posted before I fell asleep.
So, here are some promises I made to myself that I can keep this summer: I won’t call the camp freaking that they lost my children if they aren’t in pictures for a few days. And I won’t laugh at you that you did call the camp (and we will all know that you did when the first 7 pictures the next day are like a Bar Mitzvah montage of your kid)—I get it. I won’t give my kid a signal—it is really annoying to every other parent.
And I will apologize in advance for my behavior. If we happen to be out for dinner and I am in the bathroom for a few minutes too long, and slip my phone into my husband’s hands when I return to the table, sorry. Maybe by next year I’ll be able to wait for morning. But for now, my kids “live 10 for 2,” and I live for 10pm.
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.
Jewish camps across North America have opened, or are preparing to open, their gates to over 75,000 happy campers this summer. Whether you’ve already sent your trunks up to camp, or you are just starting to gather items on your packing list, remember that some of the most important things to bring with you aren’t things at all!
I recently received a pre-camp note from one of our camps. In it, was a suggested “Packing List” from Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. I’d like to share it with you.
Don’t worry – this packing list will not require another run to the store, more labeling of clothes, or any added concern about how any person is going to be able to lift the bags into the car!
So please remember to pack your kids with:
- A Helping Hand – Don’t forget to bring a caring spirit, always willing to help out a friend in need.
- An Open Mind – Remember that camp is built to offer new experiences, some of them challenging, but bring an open mind and you might just discover you found a new talent.
- A Love of Learning – Ramah is about growth; expanding horizons, and learning about Judaism, about Israel, and about the modern Hebrew language.
- A Mental Camera – Because sometimes the best moments and memories in life are captured in our minds, and shared with our friends; and not posted on Facebook.
- A Desire to Make New Friends – As you are packing, don’t forget what camp is all about – friendship! Make sure you bring a welcoming smile, a good joke, and who knows, you might just make a new best friend this summer!
I love this message. Yes, sunscreen and sneakers are necessary items, but instead of focusing on actual things we should be bringing, let’s focus on the things that allow us to get the most from our summer. After all, while it’s common for kids to forget their towel or socks at camp, they always bring their experiences home with them. And unlike material things, those experiences are irreplaceable.