Sleepaway Camp and Mixed Emotions

A few days ago Jennifer Weiner wrote about her daughter’s communications from camp. Yesterday my husband and I dropped off our two daughters at Crane Lake Camp for a three-week session. It is 14-year-old H’s seventh year at sleep-away camp and 10-year-old S’s fourth year.

H has always been confident and independent, and this year’s goodbye was like the others: She hugged and kissed us perfunctorily and was on her way with her friends. S was a different story. During drop-offs in past years she has been calm, if not completely sanguine. This year she cried, screamed, begged me not to leave, implored us to take her home. It was awful.

Just like when my girls were toddlers with separation anxiety, I knew that she would recover quickly once we were gone. It didn’t make it any easier to look into her desperate, tearful eyes, say goodbye, and walk away. I’ve already seen photos showing her smiling a short time later, clearly having a good time with girls and counselors she knows from past years and making new friends. I was emotionally drained and felt blue for much of the rest of the day anyway.

The Talmud instructs us to teach our children to swim. This is often understood as fostering a child’s independence in appropriate ways, so they’ll be able to function as competent humans and take care of themselves. I believe being away from us, their parents, helps to increase our daughters’ independence and confidence. It’s hard to feel sure of that when faced with a crying child. But it is parents’ job to make decisions that we believe are good for our kids, and enforce them, even when some of the moments (and sometimes longer stretches) don’t feel good to our kids, and consequently, to us.

Not quite as negative as communications from Jennifer Weiner’s daughter, last year the cards from S included sentences like, “I miss you so much” and “I’m crying right now.” When we talked about those notes after she was home, I asked if she had a good time, even though she missed us. Of course, she did. She and her sister love camp. The fact is, she can love camp and still feel homesick (a word they don’t use at camp, I’m told). In the same way, I can enjoy these weeks with my husband and without my children at the same time that I miss my girls.

Jewish tradition recognizes that life mixes joy and sadness all the time. We observe yizkor, our service of mourning, on joyous holidays like Passover and Shavuot. Whether Jewish or not, when a loved one dies, those who are still living often share funny memories and laugh through their tears. A healthy, well-lived life experience frequently involves the simultaneous experience of many different emotions. We do ourselves, and our children, a disservice if we try to avoid all sadness and unpleasantness.

I love my girls like crazy and I know that they’re having a great time at camp. I’ll keep trying to remember that it’s good for them to have some tough experiences too, to feel sad, hurt, and angry. All of their experiences, good and bad, will help them grow into interesting, resilient, empathetic, decent adults.

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