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This summer, we took the plunge and sent our six-year-old to sleepaway camp for the first time. I knew it would be a big step and a notable rite of passage for my son, but I didn’t anticipate how significant and consuming the experience would also be for me. If your child is heading off to overnight camp for the first time, consider these tips.
Recognize your privilege
Let me start by acknowledging that having the opportunity to send my son to an expensive, safe, and nurturing summer camp painstakingly designed to entertain and enrich him is an honor and an absolute “my Ferrari is in the shop so I guess I have to slum it in the Porsche this week” privilege. Lots of families can’t afford camp. Small children and infants are being involuntarily separated from their parents as I write. So as “tough” as it was for me to be away from my son for ten days, I acknowledge that great deal of perspective is in order and that I’m writing these lighthearted tips from a very privileged place.
Get organized early
If you’re anything like me, Benjamin Franklin, or that cat poster in your sixth grade math class, you know that failing to prepare is preparing to fail (and that you should HANG IN THERE!). Read the parent handbook, and print out the packing list. Then print out the other “optional” packing list and take all of the suggestions as gospel. Then multiply the number of shirts, shorts, and socks recommended on each of those lists by about 12 and pack that number of each. By day three, I had photographic evidence of my son wearing pretty much everything I did pack, and a number of things I didn’t. Finally, take the mind-bendingly illogical step of labeling each item you send, with the simultaneous understanding that you’ll never see it again anyway. Murphy’s Law of Camp is that if anything can get lost, it will. But at least it will be labeled as it floats in the void!
Prepare your child for what’s to come
I wanted my son to be excited and at ease about camp, so in his presence I channeled my nervous energy into effusive (some might say manic) stories about my times at camp and all of the fun things he could expect. But even with my incessant camp proselytizing, I didn’t want to be dishonest or to set him up to be angry at me for not putting all the cards on the table. So we talked about how nighttime could be hard, and what he could do about it. (This turned out to be drawing my face on a tennis ball so he could tell me goodnight every night, which I’ll acknowledge is incredibly weird but also surprisingly effective.) We talked about how he was probably going to have to fend for himself in the mornings because most kids don’t wake up at 5:30am. I eased into these not-so-fun topics and tried to equip him with coping strategies, and I think that was better than just not mentioning them at all.
Be ready to confront your own childhood camp-related feelings
We sent my son to the camp where I was a camper from ages 8-16 and then served on staff until law school. So driving through those gates as a parent was not something for which I was (or probably ever could have been) fully prepared. I saw so many old friends and former campers, all of whom were dropping off their own kids, and it was just so overwhelmingly circle of life that everything started to blur. I felt like the camper, and the counselor, and the parent all at once. I was ecstatic about everything my son was about to experience, because camp was and is a huge part of my life. But I also remembered that there were a lot of new feelings felt at camp, and tricky relationships navigated, and embarrassing moments endured. And I knew, all of a sudden, that my son was going to have to embark on all of that too. And it was a lot.
Steel yourself for drop-off and get out fast
Your child is going to be experiencing a sensory overload of new surroundings, new people, and new activities on opening day. In my experience, it works well to just stay out of the way and let camp take over. My mom and I moved my son into his space, put away his shower stuff, and made his bed. I told him where everything was (including, critically, the contents of several transparent Ziploc bags), gave a few giant hugs, and snuck out.
Be ready for the comedown
At drop-off and on the drive away from camp, I was on autopilot. The adrenaline rush of seeing old friends and childhood landmarks was overwhelming, and I just sort of barreled along with glassy-eyed detachment. Plus, my son had done so well! And the counselors were so cute and nice! Yay!
It wasn’t until later, at dinner with my parents, that it suddenly occurred to me that I’d made the worst mistake of my life. I snuffled, “He’s so little! He’s only six!” My dad sagely replied, “Well, honey, look at it this way…he’s almost seven.” And then we had a good laugh. I still felt a little bit like “Dear God what have I done,” but it was okay because I’d finally verbalized my trepidation. I’d spent so much time being nothing but positive and getting my son psyched that I hadn’t let myself show any chinks in the armor. It felt good to express my worries and start to deal with them.
Bookmark the photo site, and lean on your friends
Back in my day, campers had to walk uphill both ways to the dining hall, and parents had to send their kids into a black box for the summer with no proof of life beyond the occasional letter. These days, most camps post hundreds of pictures online every single day. It’s like a nanny cam on steroids, and just as addictive. The minute I saw my kiddo’s smiling face on day two—indicating that he had somehow, against all odds, survived a night without me—I felt a million times better.
I also have to give a shout out to my own camp friends, whom I leaned on hard. I had friends with kids going to camp for the first time, and friends with kids who had been before. I had friends serving on staff who would periodically send secret updates. As anyone who went to camp knows, camp friendships benefit from the age-old scientific principle of the shampoo effect—you can go months or even years without seeing or talking to an old camp friend, but it only takes a quick meeting to bring everything back to full strength. I’m extremely grateful to have experienced this with the support of my camp tribe.
Remind yourself of the lessons your child is learning
Up until camp this summer, my son had only gone about four days away from his parents, and that was with his grandparents. So this summer was a huge opportunity for him to gain confidence and self-sufficiency and adapt to new surroundings. It was also a time for him to let his personality shine. At camp, he had to interact with his peers and authority figures without mom and dad stepping in to remind him to be polite, a good sport, or otherwise live up to our expectations. Whether he always managed to be his best self or had slips along the way, those situations and choices were his to navigate alone for more than a school day at a time. And that’s a pretty big thing.
Acknowledge the lessons you are learning
As we all knew it would, it did happen: my kid survived ten days without me. Kids depend on parents, but in a lot of ways, parents depend on kids. I have thought a lot lately about how all-consuming my identity as a parent can feel. On the last day of camp, I felt so proud hearing that my son had a blast and was an outgoing and excited camper. But I also had to come to terms with the fact that my child can not only function without me around—he can thrive. Which, of course, is the whole point! Right?
It was good for me to step away from my role as a parent and just be me. I had some time by myself, and some time alone with my husband. (I also had some time evacuating from a potential hurricane, which I recommend as a decent distraction as long as the hurricane never materializes, which, in this case, it blessedly did not.)
Relish the time apart, and relish the reunion
A change in routine is always a refreshing way to reflect on the things I appreciate about my daily life. It puts a spotlight on things I would otherwise overlook or take for granted. In this case, being away from my son gave me time to reflect on the things I love most about him—his expressive storytelling, his welcoming, wholly nonjudgmental personality, and his boundless energy and lust for life. It also gave me a break so I could jump back into parenting feeling rejuvenated. For at least a few hours.
Bekah Page-Gourley is an attorney and contributing writer for LittleGuide Detroit. She lives with her husband, Jason, and son Isaac, in Lafayette Park, Detroit. They love experiencing the city’s growth, hosting visitors and talking about Detroit’s virtues with anyone who will listen. Bekah and her family love going to Detroit City Football Club and Tigers games, Eastern Market, the Riverfront, and Downtown.