The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Looking back on the past few months, I wouldn’t call it a “cruel summer.” Nor would I call it “the summer of my discontent.” But sending my boys to overnight camp for the first time was a far rockier road than I’d hoped I’d be traveling. The summer ended with me struggling with an odd issue that I’d never anticipated: What do you do when your kid does something wrong…and gets exactly what he wants as a result?

See, there is apparently an unspoken rule of omerta when it comes to unhappiness at camp, which I’m about to break. You are not supposed to admit that your child did not have an “amazing” time at camp. You are not supposed to talk about the fact that the camp called you or emailed you every day. You are supposed to only post the shiny, happy pictures.

Perhaps it was Facebook that misled me. I assumed my experience would follow the progression apparently conformed to by all my friends and their children. After all, all of my friends displayed in photos on their respective Timelines – and every single kid, according to these pictures, has “the time of their life” at camp:

Photo One: “Dropping X off at camp bus; we are going to miss him but he is going to have the time of his life!!!” Photo of child boarding bus with timid, yet anticipatory, smile on his face.

Photo Two: “X is having the time of his life at camp!” Photo of X smiling, arms around new friends-for-life whom he will eventually request as college suitemates his freshman year.

Photo Three: “Reunited, and it feels so good!” Photo of whole family hugging dirty, yet happy-looking  X at camp visiting day.

Photo Four: “Cannot believe X actually tried Y!” Photo of X doing something completely brave and out of character for X, like going down a 5,000 foot zipline, cooking a feast by himself for 400 people or para-sailing.

Photo Five: “So glad to have X home – he had the time of his life!” Photo of parents hugging dirtier, yet happy-looking, kid X as he gets off the bus.

I assumed this trajectory would hold true for me and my boys, even though it was at odds with my own experience as a child. I was extremely homesick at camp. I was also told in no uncertain terms by my parents that I would have to suck it up (they may not have used those words) and deal. Which, dear reader, I did.

Despite my own time at camp, though, I was a veritable Pollyanna of Positivity and Propaganda while packing my own boys for camp. I told them over and over how much fun they would have and what a great experience it would be. I convinced even myself.

And for one of them, it was “the time of his life.”

When the other one of my sons told me as I dropped him off, “PLEASE take me home with you – I won’t use the iPad or the Kinect or the television for three weeks!,” I was upset but didn’t show it. I told him that of course he was nervous, but that everyone was initially, and that he would be fine.

And yet, somehow, he wasn’t.

I got calls home from the camp. Some days he took positive steps forward, other days he took two steps backward. As I told my husband at one point, “This is like all the bad parts of parenting – the stress, the worry, the frustration – and none of the good parts, like the smiles, the satisfaction or the happiness that comes from seeing your kid succeed.”

Finally, when the 10:45 pm Saturday night call came from the camp arranging a phone call with my son the next day, I knew we were nearing a breaking point. I just didn’t know who was going to be the one to break.

We had a talk and I made it clear that I did not want to come and get him, and that he would make it the final week of camp and do well – and be proud of himself for having “made it.” But within hours, he deliberately broke a camp rule in order to get out… and there I was on the highway, driving the two hours to go pick him up and bring him home.

I’m still trying to parse out what lessons were learned. I am having a lot of difficulty stomaching the idea that my son did something wrong deliberately…and as a result, got EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTED, i.e. to come home. The joyful reunion with him was tarred by my having to discipline him (no TV, no Kinect, no iPad, lots of chores).

The trajectory was off. But no one ever talks about the kids who don’t have a great time at camp.

See, no one posts a picture of the happy-yet-sad face a kid makes when he’s thrilled to see you but knows you are deeply disappointed in him. No one tells you what the “takeaway” of such an experience is supposed to be. You have to figure it all out yourself: what went wrong? Was it the choice of camp? Was it the kid’s maturity or lack thereof? Was it some weird alchemy of the kids in the bunk and counselors? Was it something you don’t even know?

Maybe it really is “the time of your life” – in the sense that in life, things do, on occasion, go way off track from how you’d expected them to go. Everyone assumes it will all go right – but who helps you out when things go wrong? Any answers or help, please send them my way.

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