Thursday, July 17, 2014

Summers to Remember

Crazy Hair Day at SLDC
Here is my ode to camp. All camp. Any camp. Day. Sleepaway. Whatever.

I feel like camp has been discussed ad nauseum lately. Mostly because kids just started two weeks ago, at least around here. OR parents are gearing up for visiting days for both day and sleepaway camp. There has been a ton of discussion on the message boards I'm on and on Facebook. The pros the cons, you name it. But I had to just throw my own thoughts out there because that's what I do.

My very close friend just sent her nine year old daughter to sleepaway for the first time. My friend was dying inside. Not only was her daughter leaving for the first time but her daughter also has a pretty severe nut allergy. The camp she's going to is nut-free. But I have to assume it's still nerve wracking to send your kid anywhere you aren't going to be for seven weeks when they have a severe allergy to anything. My friend was totally unlike herself for like a month leading up to departure. She's normally regimented with food- yeah, that went out the window. Her calendar is done up like a surgeon. It's iron clad and booked way in advance and she doesn't miss a beat. Yet, she saw my car in front of her house one day and wondered why I was there. (Playdate with her son & E). She was like another person.

Her daughter saw NONE of this. Why? Because her best explanation, that is logical beyond logic- It's NOT ABOUT HER. It's not about how much she'll miss her or her being sad her daughter is gone. It's about her DAUGHTER. How this independence is a huge gift. Everything about camp is a huge gift.

We live in the suburbs in Bergen County. When we were kids, our parents told us to "go outside and play" in the morning and just be home for dinner. We played manhunt, we rode bikes, we played at the elementary school playground. We  rode bikes from home to home. No cell phones. Parents knew we were...."around"...but that was about it. They had a loose idea of who we were with, but there certainly were no structured playdates, no parental involvement or playing with us. My mom was drinking a Tab and laying naked on a float in the pool. We started early just being on our own. I remember being five or six and the neighborhood tweens and teens just taking me around all over the place. Frisbee in the street. Monkey-bars over concrete.

Now, we have playdates and helicopter parents. So how do kids get their freedom? Their independence? Their "figuring it out"? I used to get on my bike and try to get lost, alone. I wanted to see how long it would take me to find my way back home. I don't think I ever mentioned this little hobby to my mother either. Not because she'd be upset or worried, but because it was so normal, it didn't seem to deserve a mention. Parents don't seem to let their kids do this now- except for maybe in Glen Rock. But that's only because Glen Rock is still firmly ensconced in the 1950's. Judging from my message board activity, it's rare kids get a taste of just doing their thing without parents up their behinds.

Enter, CAMP. People either "get" camp or they don't. I don't get not getting camp. People who don't get it say the rudest, most baffling things to me (and others) who do send their kid(s) to camp. Day or sleepaway. They say- "I could never". "I'd miss them too much". "I'd miss the family togetherness". It's all with disdain and it all implies something derogatory- as in, "I love my kids more". Or "I'm a better parent". And I don't get it. Because my reply is- It's not about YOU. It's about an experience you could give THEM that will benefit them their whole lives.

Now, I don't need to defend my camp love or convince someone it's the best ever. But I'm forced to have the conversation almost on the daily. It's about as fun as the conversations I'm forced to engage in about why I choose to have only one kid. People don't get it and I don't get why you'd have more. So we're at an impasse. Thing is, I don't just tell people they shouldn't have more kids. Well, unless I'm asked for the opinion. But people think it's ok to tell me I "need" to have more, the same way they think it's ok to openly judge me for "sending my kid away".

I went to day camp. And I have awesome, amazing memories of it. Town & Country in Old Tappan which is no longer T&C. My parents never gave me the option of sleepaway. We lived in a very non-Jewish town. It's typically Jews that do the sleepaway camp thing. If you want to talk about us ever possibly being a majority- the only place is pretty much in camp. My friends didn't go to sleepaway. My parents never said I couldn't go, they just didn't suggest it and I didn't ask. My siblings went. Or at least one did. But I don't even know how that started. I'm so regretful that I didn't do it.


Facebook. I see on Facebook all the kids leaving every summer. I see the Facebook pages made by camp alumni who are still super close 20, 30, 40 years later. All the camp marriages and babies. The camp "legacies". The reminiscing and the love. It really seems magical. Sure, I know there are people that didn't enjoy it, but I bet if I took a poll, there would be way more camp love than hate. I've read memoirs about sleepaway- Moose by Stephanie Klein. I've read fiction about it. It all makes me jealous.

It's where you send your na├»ve, sheltered, suburban kid who only knows from schedules and playdates with mom & dad around and get back a kid who is a little more mature, a little more worldly, a little less plugged in, and a little less couch potato. And maybe a little more fresh. But a kid who had to do chores, live and work within a group of strangers, and navigate the nuances of different personalities without parents to referee or intervene. There is a huge difference in that kind of independence versus what you can get at home. THAT is why it isn't about YOU as the parent. It's about growth. Realizing they are a separate being from your parents and family.

It's also where you can reinvent yourself. I took Judy Blume to heart as a kid. Blubber stuck with me. I never wanted to be the bully and I didn't want to see anyone bullied. I've always been conscious of making sure I wasn't always just reliant on friends in town. I needed a life outside of my small town and I want the same for my kid. Because I remember seeing kids get bullied in elementary and middle school. I remember seeing friends turn on friends in a group- by a queen bee and her minions and the kings and their court. At least if that happens, a kid has camp to look forward to as a respite. To reinvent themselves. I will always think of Howard Stern when he talks about how he loved sleepway camp. He could be crapped on and beat up all year in school but then when he would go to camp, he was THE MAN. It makes me smile. All kids should have somewhere they feel "cool". They can't be bullied on Facebook or other social media in camp. They can't be texted threats and harsh name-calling. They all live together, for anywhere from three to eight weeks, so they have to work it out. The bonds they make are like super glue.

I'm always confused when I get the, "I can't believe you send your kid away all summer!". It's not Auschwitz. It's not prison. I'm not crying for all my son ISN'T doing these eight weeks. Because there IS nothing he isn't doing. He's ziplining, go-carting, playing sports, swimming, archery, nature, science, dance, music, cooking, pony riding, color war, and then some. He has hot catered lunch daily, swim instruction, and he takes a bus. He is responsible for his clothing, swimsuits, shoes and anything else he brings with him. He gets his responsibility and independence at five years old. Every year, I make sure he's in a group with no one he knows so he's always making new friends. I don't see any downside here. Would he be doing anything better or cooler if he was home with me? No. I know that for a fact. He has family time all year long. There is just the three of us. We're like the Three Muskateers. The gift is in getting his own time, separate from us.

People have said- "But we go to the pool. I'd miss spending time with them at the pool. Can't you just take him to the pool?". Well, I don't know about anyone else's kid, but mine never stops moving. Other kids his age and older are sleeping on that bus ride home. Mine gets off that bus and asks, "What's next?". I could take him to the pool. But how much could we do the same thing everyday? Eventually he'd get bored and cause trouble. And I'm not Julie the cruise director. I don't want to be coming up with things for us to do everyday. In this current generation of parents feeling like they need to be their kid's constant entertainment, that's what is done. Many of us forget that OUR parents were not doing all this stuff. I had a box of Barbies, a bike, and was sent on my way. Moms now feel the necessity to be the new Julie. Day trips and crafting and hiking, Oh My! Awesome, if you actually LIKE doing this stuff but if I wanted to do that, I'd BE a camp director. Considering that I really don't enjoy being around other people's children as a general rule since having become a parent, I think I'll keep my day job.

I've heard about how us camp moms "get rid" of our kids for the summer. "They're happy their kids are gone" is said with disdain. No, we're not getting rid of them. We're giving them an opportunity to do the whole menu of cool stuff we'd never be able to come up with or execute on our own. I don't own a zipline and I'm not an archer. Don't get me wrong- I'm the first to admit I'm still waiting for the "summer of Tara" to happen. I think it will commence every summer, yet it doesn't really end up being what I imagined. I do love my solo days off at the town pool, reading my People and Us Weekly and eating my chicken, apple, walnut salad courtesy of the snack bar.

I have a great kid, I love him to death, and I actually do enjoy spending time with him. But I also know my limitations and what he needs. I cannot entertain him all day, every day, nor do I have any desire to do so. Again- awesome if you love nothing more than to spend every waking minute with and entertaining your children. But I know myself. Very well. And I harbor no guilt about it either. I need alone time. I need time OFF. To recharge, regroup and to stare at the wall just daydreaming, if need be. This is also why I have one child. I am an effective parent and person with one child. I would not be with more or with the one I have being home all summer. If only everyone knew themselves that well. And didn't feel bad about it.

There is also the element of a different household dynamic. Why shouldn't you clink champagne glasses with the person you chose to spend this life with and be excited to reconnect and rediscover each other in a way you haven't since you had your first child? It's not WHY you send your kid to camp but it's an awesome bonus. Or if you have more than one child, what a great time for the younger one(s) at home to know what it's like to have more attention. Or to have to share less of it. It can only be a positive to be able to strengthen the bond you have with the child(ren) that never got you to all to themselves just by virtue of birth order. My friend and her husband are just enjoying having a grand old peanut butter party in her house until that seven weeks is up. Peanut butter, banana and raisin sandwiches and Reese's Peanut Butter cups galore until they have to clean house of all nut traces like they're kashering for Passover.

So, camp...It's the tits. Sorry, I think I learned that phrase in camp. Or in college. That would be a great tag line. This is why we send our kids. Because we don't feel the need to be our kids be all-end all court jesters. And because it's damn hard not to helicopter or intervene all the time. Camp or no camp, we all want our kids to be well behaved, to go out and play, to be responsible, to be friendly, nice, compassionate, know how to work in a group, to resolve conflict. But when they're always in our presence with us to navigate the waters for them, it's too easy to just do it for them. Sending them to camp, any kind of camp, forces US to let THEM have their chance to do it themselves. It IS as much for us as it is for them for many reasons but mostly, to have no choice but to loosen our grip so they can find their way out of that paper bag when they're finally of the age to have no choice in having to fend for themselves. So they don't go crazy with their first taste of independence and freedom when they're old enough to make dangerous choices. To instill the confidence that they won't always need a safety net. All the above, is why I do and would "get rid" of my child for seven or eight weeks of the year.

Yes it's expensive. But to me it's worth every penny. I'd rather never take a vacation for the rest of my life than not send him to camp. I may have to work the pole at 40 to afford sleepaway camp. I'll be here working on my dance moves and start looking for clear heels on Amazon.

More articles on camp love, why we send kids to camp, and camp awesomeness:

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