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.
“All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.” – The Kotzker Rebbe
Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), was a Hasidic Rebbe who was known for his caustic character and sharp wit. As the story goes he once asked his disciples, “Why don’t we do sins?” Knowing their teacher they should have known that this was a Klutz Kashe, a foolish question, to which they were never going to get the right answer. The students replied, “God does not want us to do sins,” “It is prohibited by the Torah”, and “The Rabbis do not want us to do sins.” The Rebbe snapped and summarily rejected each answer. Finally the Rebbe said, “We do not do sins because it is a waste of time. Rather, we should be using our time to do mitzvot- good deeds.”
Recently there has been flurry of writing on the “Body Talk” guidelines at Eden Village Camp. Many of the articles (including The New York Times, Slate, Kveller, The Forward) and just about all of the responding comments and blog posts explore the merits and risks of these guidelines, a warranted discussion for any parent. It should be noted, however, that the articles failed to mention that the camp does promote healthy body-awareness through sports, music, arts, nutrition education, and integrated conversations about body image, social pressures, and self-esteem. According to Eden Village Camp’s “Body Talk” guidelines,”the temporary respite from all the body commentary, together with… sessions and informal conversations on body image, allow for important sharing and insight about how one feels about one’s own body or the pressure one might feel to look a certain way, and where those messages come from, and tools for going home and being a lighthouse in a world that’s usually really different from camp.” The absence of this crucial nuance from this discussion has resulted in a conversation that has spiraled from valuable to hypothetical and misinformed.
It seems that we have fallen into the trap of the Kotzker’s Hassidim. Have we missed the point? Have we gotten lost in the merit or risks of “Body Talk” instead of focusing on having conversations that matter? What are the conversations that we want to be having?
In Jewish thought, we do not treat speech lightly. Words change lives. In Judaism, words are the very media of the creation of the world. There are so many examples that this world is broken. Each of us needs to do our part in fixing the world. What good conversations are you a part of that will lead to actions that will help fix the world? For thousands of years the discourse of Jewish life has been and needs to continue to be about making the world a better place. We need to demand of our girls, our boys, and ourselves to focus on having important conversations. It is not a question of morality; it’s a question of how we use our time.
“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.
“Who are you and what have you done with my child?”
You might be surprised how many parents of teens feel like asking this question at one point or another. They’ve watched their child learn to walk, laugh, talk, and jump … play with friends and come home breathless and excited.
Then one day, that same child seems short tempered, or quiet and withdrawn, or adamant about social interests, and you realize you’ve never seen this person before…or so it seems.
How would you like it if your teens could be at their best all the time? What if they actually had the ability to look at their negative thinking and direct their attention to the more positive aspects of life?
This may sound like some sort of fictional dream, but it is possible. Even probable, given certain elements injected into their lives. In fact, your teen really can be at their very best most or all the time, benefit in every situation they run into, and make positive decisions for their lives.
That gripping fear you feel in your gut can subside as you watch your teenager thrive.
Teens are looking for guidance, mentoring, quality life skills, and deep meaningful relationships, in spite of the vibe they put out for their parents. They just don’t have the emotional or psychological tools to develop these things without guidance. And since their developmental process includes learning to separate from their parent’s protection, they have to find guidance elsewhere.
Most teens, when faced with the changes in their bodies, emotions, varied and intense responsibilities, and social pressures feel unequipped to manage them well. If your teen seems difficult to recognize, it just could be that he’s doing the best he can in a strange and uncomfortable world.
As a mentor to clients in this age group, I’ve heard from the majority of them through the years that what they want is deep, meaningful, and rewarding relationships, but what they feel is isolation. They crave friendships that offer value and support, and stimulate personal growth.
But they need and want to feel accepted to handle the judgment and social pressures that comes with this stage of life.
Instinctively, they want to be the best they can, make the right decisions, and live a life that’s positive and satisfying.
How do they get there?
What it comes down to is mentors. Where does a teenager find mentors he can trust to lead him to make solid and safe decisions, develop social skills for meaningful relationships, and the life skills to manage responsibilities? Too often, he turns to his friends, who are in the same boat he is. Sometimes he may turn to a friend or relative, who may or may not be equipped to offer the guidance he needs.
Professional mentors like me have the education, training, and insight to provide mature but relevant companionship and guidance, and can make a real difference for your teen – if you have one in your area.
But another readily available and powerful option is camp. Camp provides opportunities through mentors for kids and teens to experience the very things they yearn for in a safe and familiar environment. They come to feel total acceptance there, which gives them the energy to develop deeper skills. They learn:
- to understand the value of being part of a team
- to make positive decisions that benefit them and their team.
- to recognize the qualities in people that will benefit their own lives and can be the foundation for rewarding and healthy friendships; and also the traits in others that are not valuable to their lives
- to be accountable to others
- to set goals, and to work at achieving them
- resilience, and how to keep getting back up and trying, till they succeed
Kids and teens who are fortunate enough to return to camp year after year continue to build upon these skills each summer. They learn from the mentors placed in their lives then eventually move forward as mentors themselves.
They grow in leadership, accountability, placing the welfare of others above their own wants, and skills to sustain healthy relationships in the long term.
They emerge confident, capable, and considerate of others, with the seeds of leadership growing within them.
Sound too good to be true? Send your kid to camp a few years then let’s compare notes.