photo by Richard BH
You know the news business has reached the summer doldrums when The New York Times’ opinion pages feature a debate on the topic: “Should Kids Go to Sleepaway Camp?”
Of course they should. Sleepaway camp is a developmental necessity. Not for the kids; they’ll come out fine no matter what we do to them, within reason. But if you want to raise healthy, well-adjusted parents, you need to send the kids to camp.
I know, because I was a wayward parent before my kids’ camp straightened me out.
Like other baby boomers, I came of age in the permissive ‘60s and ‘70s. We were an anything-goes crowd, not good at setting limits. This is probably why I took my 3-year-old daughter to see “The Little Mermaid” seven times when it was in the theaters. Who wanted to wait until it came out on VHS tape?
My wife and I did everything with our kids. Took them to beaches from Florida to New England. Dragged them through Colonial Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village. Visited every children’s museum and hands-on science center east of the Alleghenies. Baked potato pancakes with their nursery school classes. There was no escaping us. We were Kardashians before Kardashians were invented.
Children need stability and order. They need grownups who set boundaries and say mature things like “you can’t do that.” Around us, you never knew what was going to happen next. When our elder daughter was a toddler, she once fell asleep on the 30-minute ride home from her grandparents’ house in Queens. When she woke up, she was three hours away in Lake George, N.Y., because her parents had spontaneously decided to take a weekend getaway.
After a decade of this suffocation, our eldest was desperate to get away. We planned for her to go to a week-long sleepaway camp run by the Girl Scouts, about an hour from our home. But then I found out that my child would not be allowed to call home or otherwise contact us for the entire week.
What if she was unhappy? Suppose someone said something mean to her, or she didn’t like the food? What if she cried for her father and her father did not answer?
I really had no idea what to expect if my child went to camp. I never went to camp myself. I spent my childhood summers at bungalow colonies in the Catskills, where mothers stayed with the children all week while fathers remained in “the city” to work. Dads appeared only on weekends, when they grilled hot dogs and toasted marshmallows for us kids, before disappearing with our mothers into a building called “the casino.” There was no gambling in the casino. It was a room where our parents ate yucky smoked stuff like lox and whitefish, laughed at comedians who told jokes that were too off-color for us kids, and danced to old-fashioned music that we kids definitely did not want to hear.
All I knew about sleepaway camp was what I learned from Allan Sherman’s 1963 hit song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” It was a ballad of truth and justice, a heroic tale of privation and survival, until the last part where the evil camp people forced him to say everything was okay.
So, though I am ashamed to say it now, I overreacted terribly to the news that the Girl Scouts of America intended to hold my daughter incommunicado. I forbade her to go. Seriously. My wife tried unsuccessfully to reason with me. Instead of sending the older one to sleepaway camp and keeping the younger in day camp, we took the kids to Walt Disney World instead, for what was probably the 100th time.
Kids and mothers are resilient, however. The next year they were back at it. They consulted a Camp Lady, whose job was to match parents with suitable camps that their children would not mind attending. The Camp Lady recommended the Sports and Arts Center at Island Lake in Starrucca, Pa., a lovely co-ed facility run with patience and affection by a family from the New York area, the Stoltzes. I was still on the fence about this, until one evening my daughter’s friend Julie dropped by. She noticed the Island Lake brochure on the counter and remarked that she, too, was going there, because her mother was going to be the camp nurse.
That settled the matter.
My daughter made the best of her opportunity. She began attending Island Lake at age 11 and went back every summer until she was 25. She was a camper, a counselor-in-training, a counselor, a group leader and a program director. She became close to the Stoltz family, and they treated my daughter - and her little sister, who began attending the next year - like their own.
My kids were excellent campers. I was a nightmare of a camp parent. When the bus came to pick them up at the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers, I acted out - sneaking onto the bus until the little one ran me off, and dancing around the parking lot, twisting the lyrics of a ditty from Disney’s film “The Lion King” as I shouted, “No kids! No kids! Tra-la-la-la-la-la!” My daughters became adept at pretending that I was a vagrant who was just passing through, but after five or six years of this their camp friends - and they made many - probably caught on.
There was still the matter of limited contact. Island Lake divides the summer into three sessions, and families can send their kids for any or all of them. This flexibility was very handy when my kids got older and wanted to do other things while still spending part of their summer at Island Lake. But each session provided only one phone call opportunity, and there is just a single visiting day every summer (two for children whose parents are split). On visiting day we would take the kids out for lunch and shopping, and we were always the last to return them at the end of the day.
Island Lake finally trained me to separate from my children. When they went off to college, each in a city nearly 1,000 miles away, the distance did not seem important. We could call and text whenever we wanted, and they came home as often as I sent them tickets.
Sending kids to camp teaches parents that we can function independently.
My daughters are grown now, hard at work building their own lives. Last night my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We are on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, checking out the beaches and sleeping within earshot of the waves.
It’s like a sleepaway camp for empty nesters. And yes, it’s good for us.