When I was a camper a billion years ago, my parents had no idea what was going on at camp while I was there, beyond what I told them in my letters. There were no phone calls home. There was no camp social media director sending out parent bulletins via Facebook and Twitter. And most of all, there were no pictures — except for the ones I chose to take with my crappy little real-film camera, and even those, I had to develop weeks after my return home.
Today’s campers, in contrast, are generally subject to a continuous paparazzi photo shoot. Camp directors send professional photographers out into the camp to take pictures of kids having fun. These pictures are then uploaded to a camp’s website, or Facebook, or some combination thereof. And then, parents of campers can sit at their computers or iPhones, staring slack-jawed at the web browser, hitting ‘refresh’ over and over again so that they can catch a glimpse of their son or daughter.
I am sorry to say that photos indicate nothing whatsoever about the nature of a child’s camp experience, and that I know this from personal experience.
When I sent the boys to camp, I didn’t expect to miss them as much as I did. The idea of photos of their camp experience struck me as appealing as a window, however small, into what they were doing, I thought, and a letter conversation-starter. “Hey – I saw a picture of you holding someone by the legs – was that a color war event or random fun?” I didn’t expect to glean much information from the photos beyond whether it was hot or cold at camp on a given day (though my boys’ wardrobe does not necessarily line up with the weather).
One of my sons – whether because of his red hair or some other reason – turned up in almost 50% of the camp’s photos. Without exaggeration, over the photos taken through the entire summer, there was only one photo in which he was smiling. In the others, he looked exhausted, or spaced out, or preoccupied with whatever preoccupies 8-year-old boys (Minecraft? Lego?). This kid, however, wrote daily letters home that read like advertisements for camp. Laden with exclamation points, the kid’s letters were a five-star, rave review of camp. Even the food got accolades.
My other son appeared in few photos, but in each one was featured prominently sporting a wide smile, flashing peace signs and every sign that he was the proverbial happy camper. I can assure you, sadly, that he was not. Every letter I received from him dwelled unremittingly on his homesickness and how lonely he felt. In his letters, he pleaded for me to pick him up early from camp (which, due to a variety of circumstances I don’t feel comfortable writing about, did end up happening).
In short, pictures may say a thousand words – but those words are not necessarily the truth. Pictures can soothe you with the knowledge that your child is still physically at camp — but they do not tell you the whole story of what is transpiring in your child’s head or heart.
Judaism has long been a religion skeptical of things as they appear on the surface. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out that the Hebrew word for garment comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for betrayal. Appearances, in one flash of light or a flashbulb, can deceive. Sometimes, they show you what you want to see. After all, what camp sends its photographers into bunks with night vision cameras to capture campers sniffling with homesickness into their pillows?
Perhaps we’d do best to shut the cameras off – or at least send the pictures out after the fact as opposed to during. Then we might be able to better focus not on how things appear, but on how they really are.
Like this post? Read more of Jordana’s writing on Kveller.com.
A colleague who I trust and admire recently shared with me a New York Times piece she wrote about sending her children to camp. She wondered why it was that her children — one boy and one girl — should have to be separated at camp. They have always shared a room and she was rightfully proud of the connection she and her husband had helped their kids to form. Even though she was committed to the endeavor of summer camp, she couldn’t understand why she would want to put the kids in a situation where they would, by necessity, be separated.
I thought about her post a lot over the weeks after I read it. I kept trying to see if I could get on board with her idea that coed cabins would be ideal for her kids. And I just couldn’t seem to wrap my head around it. I was so impressed by the relationship she described between her kids, but I couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t be apart while at camp.
And then, as so often happens over the long days at camp, I had a moment where it all became clear. I realized that, when siblings come to camp together, they can explore how best to be in a relationship with one another, without having their parents’ influence or input. (I often say that camp is about making kids their best selves. Perhaps it is also about making relationships between siblings and friends the best they can be.) Last Friday morning, our teen campers returned from four weeks in Israel. They got off the bus and, quite literally, ran towards their siblings. After a life changing experience, all they wanted to do was to hug their brothers and sisters. And the next day, when we took sibling and family pictures, we watched kids stand together, help each other comb their hair, and smile for their parents.
We started taking sibling pictures a few years ago because parents wanted to see their kids smiling together. A parent wrote to me the other day that this year’s picture of her kids “made her week.” It’s as if parents don’t believe that their children could really get along as well as the pictures show. But they do get along that well. They do want to see each other. They do want to hang out together. And they do want to share their experiences with each other. Why? Because, at the core, they are family. And we want nothing more than for our kids to feel deeply connected to their family — whether blood relatives or people who are so close that they might as well be part of our family tree. When we send them to camp and separate them from their siblings, we often do so with the desire for them to have an opportunity to be their own person. And that is great. But it’s also great for them to have the opportunity to show who they are in relationship to their siblings in an environment of their peers. Letting kids act this out now will only help them later in life, when they are out in the “real world” interacting with each other. Giving them an opportunity to build a parent-free bond at camp is great training for the future of our families, and of our world.
So do I think we should have sibling bunks? I’m not sure I’m there yet. But do I think it would be great for parents to encourage siblings to strengthen their relationships while at camp? Absolutely!
Folks — As much as I literally feel my heart pounding every time I hear a story about crazy fear-mongering, or outrageous overreaction to a very small threat, I realize that there is more to life — and even this blog — than just shouting, “But they’re WRONG!” (Even though they are! They’re wrong! I swear they are!)
So today, I’d like to ask you for a story that begins: “Nothing bad happened when my kid…” And then fill in the blank with something your child did, indeed, do that other parents might consider “dangerous.” Or even that YOU , at first, considered dangerous.
Maybe your toddler climbed the jungle gym officially designated, “Age 5 and up.” Maybe your 6-year-old went to the drinking fountain outside the playground gates while you stayed inside with your baby. Maybe your 8-year-old rode her bike to the library, or your middle-schooler met up with friends for pizza at dusk and “forgot” to bring his phone!
In short: Do you have a story that can inspire other parents to dip a toe into the Free-Range world? If so, please include the age of your child and, if possible, answer these questions:
1 – What activity did your child do?
2 – Whose idea was it?
3 – Why did you permit it?
4 – What was the upshot?
5 – Would you and yours do it again?
And if your children would like to write to me themselves, they are, of course, most welcome.
Check out some initial responses here.
I’m a mom of four, soon to be five, kids, after all. I know how to diaper a squirming baby, how to pack a lunch that will get eaten, and how to peel melted cheese off a formerly-lost permission slip. I know how to pack for a week away for a family of six, I know how to order for said children at restaurants so that they will eat the food, and I know how many bathroom stops to make per a given amount of highway mileage.
I did not expect to be so taken aback by my boys’ first experience at overnight camp.
Why, you ask? What have they said that was so shocking?
Granted, they haven’t even been at camp a week. Even if they wrote me letters (which who knows whether or not they have, despite all the envelopes they addressed and stamped before camp), I have yet to receive them. You’d think I’d have considered this before they left, that for a few days at least, I wouldn’t hear from them.
And maybe I did. But there’s a big difference between the abstract and the reality.
My boys are eight and nine. Even though I’m divorced from their dad, I’ve never gone more than a day without speaking to them.
At first, the silence pissed me off – yes, irrationally of course, because we don’t communicate telepathically. But now, as it starts to settle in, I’m thinking that this tiny bit of distance is good for both of us.
Let them be independent for a little bit – or as independent as you can be, when your mom packed your toothbrush and Marvel Avengers’ body wash. There are so many things I, as their mother, want to teach them, but surely one of them should be that it is okay to stand on your own two feet.
I don’t know exactly what they’re up to, or what they’re wearing, or what they’re thinking, but surely that’s a small hint of what the future holds as they set down the long road of growing up. And letting them grow up by letting go (a little!) is, perhaps, the best thing I can do.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still checking the mailbox. But in my heart, I know they are okay.
Like this post? Read more of Jordana’s writing on Kveller.com.
I’d like to say that my wife, Cynthia, my son, Jonah, and I are enjoying a wide variety of family activities in the last few days before Jonah heads off to sleep away camp. That we’re having picnics on the beach, visiting museums, and attending performances of Shakespeare in the park. But the truth is we’re spending almost every waking moment packing and labeling. These twin chores seem endless. What to send with Jonah and how to make sure the majority of it returns with him has become an all-consuming job.
Jonah’s camp has graciously provided guidelines for what to pack, though they are more helpful in theory than in practice. Twenty pairs of socks, for instance, assumes that your average teenager – Jonah is fourteen – your average human being, for that matter, has ever succeeded in owning twenty pairs of socks that match. Some of the guidelines we are determined to ignore. So while four bathing suits are recommended, we’ll send at least twice that many. Given Jonah’s love of the water, we know he’d sleep in a bathing suit, in the lake, if he could get away with it. Which is to say, who needs to pack all those pajamas? The camp’s list also provides an encouraging glimpse into what Jonah will not get to do (only non-electronic games, i.e. board games); and what he will be expected to do, like regularly attend Friday Shabbat dinners (white tops, modest outfits).
But it’s the requirement to label everything we pack – from toothpaste tubes to flip flops – that is our most time consuming activity these days and also surprisingly expensive. Last year, my wife ordered labels and ended up paying fifty dollars for what turned out to be a rather small and unimpressive packet of personalized stickers. Of course, the cost wouldn’t be so bad if the whole exercise didn’t seem so pointless. Inevitably, Jonah comes home with some other kid’s underwear and a pink My Little Pony tank top.
This summer we have made sure Jonah has a more active role in the packing, in particular. We are wincing but saying nothing whenever he matches striped shirts with checked shorts. We had to speak up, though, when he insisted on taking his iPad. Camp rules, not ours, we informed him. Then we tried, mainly unsuccessfully, to explain to him how to play Monopoly. We are letting him take his old guitar, however. In fact, I have already labeled it. I affixed a small Jonah tag to a place where it is very unlikely to be spotted. With any luck at all, he will not only learn some traditional camp songs, but he will come home with a newer, better guitar.
When “Camp Gyno” came out last week I immediately sent it around to all my friends with the subject line – “Camp – Hysterical.” And at first watch, it is. The writing is fabulous, the actress is brilliant. The tie-dye t-shirts, string bracelets, totally authentic (full disclosure: it was filmed at Surprise Lake Camp – one of the camps we work with here at FJC). I am sure tampon creative execs are reeling about how this mom got it so right out of the gate and they still make commercials full of 20-somethings prancing around in white jeans and jars full of blue liquid to prove absorbency.
It was the nostalgia that got me. The commercial is an ode to every female camper, ever – a compilation of our story, our language, our history. Every bunk had a period guru – Menstrual Mommy, Auntie Flo. We all have a story of whispering in the back bathroom trying to learn to use a tampon so we could swim and no one would know. I always felt bad for non-campers. How the hell did they learn this stuff?!
The video deals with some really important themes in a minute and 47 seconds – being an outcast, gaining and managing popularity, and just talking to your friends about periods. Kudos to Hello Flo founder Naama Bloom and BBDO for that. I love how they talk in real language too. It may not be the correct language, but it is the language we use – “vag,” “gyno” – it is how we talk. It makes the “icky” accessible.
But as I watched the video a few more times, it got a little less funny each time. I started thinking: does this fabulous video send the wrong message in the end? It gives great insight into a teen girl’s first period experience. So why are we willing to take that conversation and tuck it away into a plain brown box? I am not really a women’s libber, but are we still so embarrassed that we can’t go into a store and buy a box of pads? Is it necessary to have them “discretely” delivered to our door every month? Do we really want to teach our daughters that they need to hide it away? Yes, it is hard at 12, 13, 14, 28, 42 years old to walk around with pads and tampons in your knapsack. Hard, yes. Shameful, no. I think that good parenting is giving your kid the tools to help them through hard things. Sometimes that tool is a extra pretty Vera Bradley pouch that you would never buy for a 12 year old, but will make carrying pantiliners that much less hard. If I can’t show my daughters that I can walk into CVS and buy a big old box of tampons as easily as I do shampoo and Altoids, how will she learn to do it?
The commercial starts out with campers having a dialogue about periods. They just put it out there. No shame, no pretense because camp is the place where kids learn to overcome fears, to have hard conversations, and gain independence.So I’ll be damned if I am going to throw that all away because periods are a little hard to talk about.
Who am I to rain on an entrepreneur’s idea? I am jealous that she was brave enough to go after a dream. (She probably learned that at camp too. She went to another one camp in FJC’s network, Camp Galil). I am always tempted to sign up for subscription commerce – I love new stuff and can be as lazy as the next person. If two days go by and I don’t order from Amazon Prime, Jeff Bezos himself delivers chicken soup to my door. But in this case, I’ll wear a red badge of courage on my sleeve. I learned how at camp. I’ll see you in the feminine hygiene aisle.
I had a lot of dreams and goals for my kids when I sent them to camp. They are both so comfortable in their own skin, I wanted a place that would continue to make them feel like that when they were in the middle of mean girl/middle school stuff. I wanted them to have those friendships that ran so deep, you can barely stand to be apart from each other. I wanted them to read by flashlight, not care when their feet touched the bottom of the lake, feel like I did when they celebrated Shabbat under the trees.
I wanted them to be part of a community that was their own (living in the same town and going to the same temple where their father and I grew up … I am imagining it can get a little old). Learn how to make decisions and deal with the consequences when I am not there to help put the pieces back together. One thing I never thought about was how their relationship as sisters would grow.
Over the past three summers, they have embarked on the incredible journey of camp and as my younger daughter has joined my older daughter, I have seen an incredible level of friendship and sisterhood develop between the two. Camp strengthening their relationship just wasn’t on my neat little check-off list of things to talk to a camp director about. Yet, it has been an incredible thing to watch.
I have been very careful not to tell my older daughter to check-up on her sister, especially the first year or so. I hadn’t wanted to put the pressure on her or make her responsible for her sister’s good time. They are very close at home. Not telling secrets in the dark (though I think that will come), but happy to cheer each other on at softball and soccer games, be each other’s favorite playmate and genuinely miss each other when they spend the day apart. I mean, it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, they’ve got the fighting over clothes thing down pretty well and one is always making the other late for school. Though when I glanced at their camp cubbies, it was hard to tell who’s was who’s – even though they are a few bunks apart – the clothes seemed to be shared much happier here.
This is the first year they are both at camp for seven weeks so I was a little worried how we were going to give both of them the proper individual attention they needed at visiting day. Worry not necessary. They had sat together and planned the day for us – they even had a rain plan (which included lots of ice cream of course). They knew all about each other’s visits to the infirmary and bug bite care. The counselors told us how they check up on each other at every meal. As we were getting ready to leave visiting day, my nine-year-old had a mini-melt down – not ready to see the day end. As I comforted one, I overheard her big sister making a plan with the counselor so she could come put her to bed later that night.
I am excited for their return and to see the closeness that has developed over another three weeks. No one will understand the post-camp funk better than a real sister experiencing the same thing. They’ll come home speaking almost a different language filled with secret jokes and song lyrics. Last year, I almost felt like a stranger in my own home after they returned. Good thing I will have trunks full of laundry to keep me busy!
Maybe healthy eating has been a struggle between you and your kids this year, or maybe they are happy to chow down on roasted broccoli, whole wheat pasta and grilled chicken. Either way, once the kids head off to camp you will no longer be able to guide them towards making healthy choices at meal and snack times. Camp is a time for kids to enjoy and let loose a little, but it’s also a time for them to assume some responsibility and assert some of that beautiful independence that is fighting to be set free. So, with that in mind, think about sharing these tips for healthy eating at camp with your camper (perhaps while you munch on the fabulous granola bar recipe below).
- When able, choose fruits, low fat milk, and whole grain cereals at breakfast. Try to avoid juice and sugary cereals.
- If there is a salad bar, have a green salad with lots of vegetables at lunch and dinner.
- If you get canteen on a daily basis or if you have snack food in your cabin, try to limit yourself to 1 item of junk food a day and try to avoid sugary drinks like soda, juices, sports drinks and iced teas.
- Try to be aware of how much you are eating and stop when you are full. If you rate how full you are on a scale of 1-5, and 1 is still hungry and 5 is OVER full, you should stop at a 3.
- If chicken has skin on in, remove before eating.
- Try to have fruit as a dessert or snack when and if you can.
- Try to have some protein with every meal. Foods high in protein are: Greek yogurt, eggs, tofu, beans, meat, chicken and fish.
- When possible, choose whole wheat bread over white bread.
- Only drink water at meals.
- Eating isn’t a race! Remember to eat slowly so you can appreciate and digest your food.
Sweet n’ Nutty Granola Bars
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
2/3 cup chopped dried apricots
1/3 cup chopped pistachios
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 325°F. Line an 8-by-11-inch pan with parchment paper. Whisk egg, egg white, sugar, oil, cinnamon, ginger salt and vanilla in a large bowl. Stir in oats, pistachios, apricots and flour. Spread in prepared pan. Bake until golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool; cut into 15 bars with a lightly oiled knife.
Throughout the school year, my daughter’s Instagram feed is filled with posts from friends - “#campzipcode is my home,” “100 days until I’m HOME” and “meet me at HOME #campzipcode.” And it makes sense – as a parent, you probably spent hours picking out the perfect camp for your family. You talked to the directors and other families and probably most importantly, made sure the camp values matched that of your own. Camp is a place where we send our children to build their identity, create memories and friendships. When I see these posts and hear that my kids feel that camp is their second home, it is almost like they are giving me a blue ribbon that says “Job well done, Mom, you picked the right place for me!”
There has been a lot of camp talk in the media lately that, honestly, makes me cringe and want to look away. Recently the NY Times ran a piece about care packages and of course, there’s that piece about visiting day whose name I can’t even bring myself to type.
If kids see camp as their second home, why can’t we – as parents – respect that and not try to undo what camps try so hard to create? Why do visiting day and care packages become a way to outdo each other? Why do we feel the need to break all the rules, and win our kids love with the biggest candy tower? Are these the values we are looking to instill in our children – score more goals than the kid next to you, I hope you get more turns on the pottery wheel and your clay bowls are bigger than the kid in the bunk above you?
If another kid came into our home and behaved the way we do when it comes to camp – I can only imagine what would ensue. We have all asked our children not to bring ‘that kid’ home after school. In my house – like most homes – we set rules and expect our children and their friends to abide by them. We don’t have many rules (I am on the verge of teenagers so I am sure they are coming) – be kind, be inclusive, be honest, don’t eat chocolate on the couch, get your homework done before Oovoo-ing with your friends… Yet, when a camp sets similar reasonable rules we set the example for our children by hollowing out deodorant bottles as a hiding place for candy. OMG – there is a gummy bear emergency in Bunk Aleph! Think about the position you are putting your child in when they find the hidden candy or even worse, a hidden cellphone in a sock. They need to “hide the contraband” from the counselors they are supposed to respect and look up to and ask their friends to keep secrets.
We will never stop running towards our kids on visiting day. When we scope out places for our tents and blankets on Visiting Day do we put cracks in the community that our children created? Do we need to cover their beds in candy towers, Rice Krispie ice cream cones and dozens of Sprinkles cupcakes? At camp we encourage kids to discover new parts to themselves and make new connections. Why can’t that apply to their relationship with their parents too? It need not be about the loot. The kids just want us. Our full attention – so they can show off their favorite places in camp, introduce us to 200 of their new best friends and tell the stories that make this magical place of camp, their second home.
When parents hide cellphones in socks and balloons in between the pages of magazines trying to get around the flat care package only rule, they are taking the staff (remember the staff – you asked a million questions on how they are trained, where they come from etc) away from doing what they are supposed to be doing – creating a community, facilitating learning, cheering on your child as they accomplish something new.
This is their other home, and the camp directors set the rules – we expect the kids to follow all the ones at camp, not just the ones they like, right? Like at home, the rules are there to keep them safe and happy. Camps directors spend hours analyzing camper photographers, deciding if they should allow packages or determining how to communicate with parents. The sooner we learn to respect those rules and decisions, the sooner we can expect to enjoy some of the magic from our campers summer homes to seep into our own.
This summer my plan is to start writing a book with the working title God Laughs: How Judaism Ruined My Life. I recently received a grant to proceed with the project, but the idea is still a little vague as is my plan for its eventual execution. I like the title though – taken from the famous Yiddish proverb, “Man plans and God laughs” – and I especially like the subtitle, though I can see it getting me into trouble down the road. Also, in thinking about what to write, I keep coming back to a recurring theme in my life or, as I prefer to call it, a running gag – my ambivalence about being Jewish.
A quality, incidentally, I do not share with my 14-year-old son, Jonah. This probably shouldn’t be surprising. Jonah has autism and ambivalence is not really something he’s wired for. He lives in a predominantly black-and-white world and is inclined to take things literally. And while, lately, he’s become more interested in complicated, existential issues like what happens to us after we die and why does time only move forward, I couldn’t even guess if he believes in God in the conventional sense. Then again, I doubt he’s plagued by doubts about how Jewish he is or feels. He’s Jewish, mainly because his mother and I told him so. A reason, let’s face it, that has been good enough for countless generations of Jews before both of us.
Still, I’ve never seen Jonah quite so focused as when he’s following along with the reading from the Haggadah at family Seders. Or, last year, when he just about flawlessly delivered the long, difficult Hebrew passages in his bar mitzvah portion. Jonah has also participated in the Friendship Circle since he was a kid. Friendship Circle is a branch of the Chabad movement, with chapters across North America as well as in countries like Australia, France, England, South Africa and Israel. Its mission is to provide friendship and foster acceptance for kids with special needs by matching them up with volunteer teenagers. (It also fosters much-needed respite for the parents of kids with special needs.) Jonah is right at home whenever he shows up at the Friendship Circle for an event or a simple get-together. In June, he participated in the Montreal chapter’s annual and rather extravagant fundraiser. It was a talent show this year and Jonah was one of the featured acts. He was a hit singing and playing “Hey Jude” on his guitar. I’m guessing the Friendship Circle organizers aren’t big Beatles fans but I hope they noticed that the lyrics he sang perfectly summed up what their organization is so open-heartedly dedicated to doing. Simply put, to “take a sad song and make it better.”
The B’nai Brith sleep-away camp Jonah attended last year and will go to again this year is obliged to have a more ecumenical approach than the Friendship Circle as it has to cater to a wide spectrum of Jewish beliefs. It’s not specifically orthodox or reform or conservative. This is one of the issues that can be tricky to deal with, the camp director Josh Pepin admitted to me recently. He and his staff will have to weigh how much religious instruction is too much; and how much is too little. Whatever they decide on I suspect Jonah will greet it with his unique brand of matter-of-fact spirituality, one I often find myself envying. He will enthusiastically participate in Friday Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services. When the Israeli flag is raised he will sing the Hatikvah loud as he can. He will spend his summer living Jewishly. “Jewish identity is paramount at our camp,” Pepin told me. “Our job is to create Jews.” With Jonah, they already have one. With me too, for that matter, though I’ll spend this summer – as I’ve spent most of my life – wondering what being a Jew means to me. I’ll also probably have to figure out a way to explain my book’s subtitle to whoever I end up telling about my book. I’ll have to point out that when I say Judaism ruined my life, I’m just joking. Well, half-joking anyway.