This summer I sent my Thing 2 off to camp for the first time. He’d been to camp before, camping with us, but not overnight, by himself, for a week. A lot of people asked me if I thought he was old enough. I told them how I went to overnight camp at his age, so he could handle it. He is far more outgoing than I ever was. But then again, I was pretty miserable that first year, and vowed to never return. Well, I don’t know about miserable, but I was definitely clueless. Check out any of the few existing pictures and I’m there in knee socks with sandals and yellow soccer shorts, with my hair barely brushed. And kids these days are far more dependent, with their over-scheduled and micromanaged lives. So… maybe, I thought, in a tiny place in my heart, maybe he’s not ready.
Aw. Who was I kidding? This kid was born ready. He learned to walk at camp, tottering a few steps at a time, on his little misshapen feet, wearing his blue bear pajamas as we waited out a snow storm that kept us an extra night. He threatened to run away for the first time at age four at camp: he was moving there because “Mommy only stays outside in the snow for a few minutes. Paul takes me on the sled all afternoon.” Camp was in his blood before he was born, his great grandparents volunteering, sitting in their chairs on beach all afternoon; his grandmother, aunt, dad and I all on staff. As an infant, he’d stayed awake until the stars came out and screamed when we tried to put him down a minute sooner.
But maybe still not ready. His toe deeply cut a couple of days before check-in, and there he was, milking a limp. Was it still there when no one was watching? I wasn’t sure. Maybe he wasn’t sure. Did he want an out? Then there was the feigned disinterest: “Yeah, I guess,” was his response when asked if he was excited to go. Maybe it was just me that wasn’t ready, for the last first time. Yeah, probably just me.
The hours ramping up to check in brought a lot of tension. Thing 1 had been to camp for three summers already, and he remembered that one year I’d gotten her a new book to read at rest hour. “Do I get a going-away present too?” he asked. Ugh. I can’t handle the number of times these people think they need g.d. presents! “No,” I told him, “I have been here with you all weekend. I have had no time to buy you a gift. Besides, camp IS the gift.”
There was some howling. And louder than that, the screaming in my head that this child NEEDED to leave me for a week, and fast. I was reminded of my kids as preschoolers when I was certain I’d love them just a little more after a nap. “It’s not fair! You love her better than you love me! She gets everything first! And a present too.” No amount of explaining what a gift camp is could settle him down.
And how DO you explain what a gift camp is?
Kid, you’re getting things that will become part of the fabric of you. The smell of rain and mulch, the sound of the lake lapping gently at night, the crackling campfire. Grass stains and sweat. The bell. Loons. Ducks. Hay and mud. The sound of the dining hall door slamming. Dirty feet. Candlelight. Cheering. Sand and rocks. Some of the rocks have paint, or googly eyes on them. It’s camp.
Try something new. A new food, a new song, a new friend. A new sport. You’re getting all that too. And you’ll find out that you can use your competitive spirit in ways you never dreamed. All this time you’ve been trying to hit the strike zone, or catch the perfect pass, but games await you that won’t need you to have developed your skill sets: whoever can sound like a chicken while doing dizzy bat is the winner. Think you can handle it? GO!
The gift you won’t understand, kid, until you’re in it is, you get the week off. A week of YES. We get on you for everything: Use your fork, not your fingers. Be patient while someone else is talking. That’s too much syrup. Use your inside voice. Is that your best penmanship? Sit on your bottom, not your knees… no, all the way down. Stop running. Enough of the fart noises. Ketchup has no nutritional value. Change your socks. Why is there peanut butter on your eyebrow? Did you even have peanut butter today?
Camp gives you a chance to learn that, guess what: those things don’t matter. Sure they matter to us as your parents, trying to raise a civilized human. But they aren’t the measure of who you are becoming. And maybe sometimes you’re frustrated, or feel like a failure, reminded constantly of The Expectations. So go to camp, kid. Use your fingers. Yell a lot. Don’t sit properly. Run EVERYWHERE. Don’t write home. Make extra fart noises, the louder the better. Live exclusively on syrup and ketchup. Don’t wear socks, or wear the same ones all week. Indigestion, scraped knees, and body odor be damned! No. One. Cares. You be you.
You’re one of the lucky few, kiddo. We aren’t rich, but you are, because you have parents who know you need this. Every kid needs this. Underprivileged kids need this because there’s too much fear and shame in their everyday and they need a week off too. Privileged kids need this so they can realize what really matters. There’s not a kid, or a grown up for that matter, who doesn’t need a week off. Not a vacation or a trip, but a week off of the rules, whatever their rules might look like.
And while I’m at it, it’s the opposite of “Kids these days…”
Think about it. Nothing good ever follows those three words. It goes something like:
…can’t make eye contact.
…can’t unplug from their screens.
…can’t take responsibility for their actions.
…have their parents handle all their problems.
…can only speak through texts.
So, guess what, kid: No screens for a week. You will get up at 7:00, clean up, walk everywhere, make nice with strangers, get a ton of exercise, make all your own decisions and deal with all the consequences, and write letters home about it. On paper. With a pencil. You will NOT end up like “Kids these days” if it is the last thing I do, and you will have all the fun of all the yesses that go along with it, so just go to camp and stop asking me for an effing present!
I didn’t say any of that.
Truth is, he was more than ready. At drop off, I was barely finished making his bed when he said, “Okay thanks. Bye, Mom.” I asked if he wanted to go get his sister checked in too, and he answered, “I know where she’ll be. Girls Cabin Four. It’s fine.” And while I did get a hug out of him, he didn’t need anything else.
I had stolen a few moments to write a letter to leave in his pillowcase. It wasn’t a present. But it was what I had to give him: something to hold him over until real mail would arrive. A few questions about his cabin-mates and activities in case he needed some prompting to write home. My excitement for him to finally be old enough for the “real deal.” And a reminder of how much I had enjoyed the past three summers of solo time with him while big sis was at camp overnight, and would be missing hiking up to watch the sunset, reading late into the night by flashlight, campfire-cooked dinners, and running a 5k together.
I didn’t hear from him all week.
I picked up a very happy dude, who had only worn two outfits all week. He’d actually showered, but just put the same clothes back on. He liked them. Oh boy. Well… less laundry than I’d anticipated. Silver lining.
He swore he had addressed envelopes but had forgotten his notebook so there was no paper. No paper? More likely, he was having too much fun to ask.
The stories trickled out, sometimes gradually and sometimes in gushes, all full of fun and noise and dirt and crazy. His counselor was the BEST storyteller ever. He did everything he’d wanted to and more. He was sillier, funnier, louder, more rambunctious, and larger than life. Outgrowing his body. He wanted to go to camp for two weeks, no, THREE weeks, next year.
In the quiet though, my little boy came back to me.
“Mommy,” he said. “I found your letter. Thursday night. It made me homesick.”
“I’m sorry,” I answered, “I didn’t mean for it to upset you.”
More quietly. “I cried. In my bed. Late at night.”
“I put it around my special rock, and crumpled it up and squeezed it.”
“Were you mad, to do that?”
“No. It was late. I was tired.”
And just like that, he was on to another topic. It had rained one day. There was a dance. All the older boys love Axe body spray. Their cabin was the messiest. He switched out of Frisbee class to Soccer instead. He played baseball at Free Period and forgot to go to singing practice. There was so much Four Square.
I was left to ponder. Do we do our kids a favor by over-involving ourselves? I’d hardly call two letters in a week over-involved, but still… there was nothing I could do to help him that week other than to let him know he was loved. And maybe even that was too much. The thought flew away until, unpacking, I discovered the rock.
Oh, THAT special rock. It was a special rock. He had found it on the path at camp the previous summer because someone had painted a message on it. He had carried it all over the camp, and then all around at home all year. Sometimes in his backpack, sometimes it was on his desk next to his bed. Sometimes he would ask me who I thought had painted it. Sometimes it would disappear for weeks and reappear again (a minor miracle in his treacherous bedroom). Always a reminder that camp was with him, and that he was coming back again. Somehow, very purposefully, he had brought it back home. But I hadn’t known.
And there, surrounding it, my little love note to my baby growing up.
I’ve wondered all my life how, in Rock/Paper/Scissors, Paper beats Rock. By covering it? Really???
Yes, really. Man, that letter is tiny. Squashed up and squeezed, hard around that rock, in the palm of my 8 year old in the night.
He loves camp. But where mom is, is still home. For now.
See, it works both ways. If we don’t send them away from us, we don’t give them a chance to miss us. We’ll just keep scheduling them and correcting them and making them believe they need our approval. If they don’t get a chance to make their own way, even if it is strewn with maple syrup and fart noises, they won’t know they can.
So he found out he could change a class he wasn’t happy with, on his own. (Advocating for himself – look at that!) And he found out that if you forget to show up for singing practice, you won’t be in the picture for the program, also on his own. (Natural consequences – Okay!) He found out that you get really smelly wearing the same shirt for five days, on his own. (Wow, that’s ripe. Does he care? NO!) And he knows now that if he’s walking around with dirt so thick he can’t see skin, he may just have had the best time of his life. On his own.
Kinda big deal stuff.
And, he discovered that he really misses his family when he’s on his own.
He was ready. But paper covers rock.