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My son, now 15, tall and looking more like the man he will become than the boy I will always see, recently came home from his best summer yet. He spent July and August in New Hampshire, just as he has for the past seven years, at a sleep away camp.
My son can’t really say why this past summer at camp was so wonderful. Perhaps the fact that he was among the oldest campers in their final year at the camp has something to do with it. Perhaps it’s the gaggle of girls I saw him sitting with in many of the pictures posted to the camp’s website. It was more than that, however. It was a camaraderie that developed among boys who have spent seven summers together and reached the end of an experience.
...there will always be things that happen in our kids’ lives that exclude us. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s what we should want for our kids.
And to think that my wife and I almost didn't let him attend after his first year. It's one of those rare moments when the parental protection instinct was entirely wrong.
When my then-8-year-old son returned from his first summer away, my wife and I could tell that something wasn’t right. He seemed to have had a good time. His letters, though sparse on detail, reported as much. His stories, however, focused on negative experiences. We gradually realized that he had been bullied by at least one kid in his bunk, a fact that bothered us tremendously.
Even so, he said he wanted to return. As parents, though, how could we send him back? Why would we willingly send our child into physical or emotional harm? We liked this camp a lot – its programs and director, its unique cabins and the option to experience Jewish culture without an overtly religious tone. We struggled with what to do.
To help us decide, we drove to the camp off-season under the guise of showing his grandparents around. It was one of those comfortably chilly but sunny New England spring days. We unloaded our entourage from the minivan. The grounds were quiet. The director, who had responded with concern and a plan of action when we shared our worries about the bullying, walked us from bunk to bunk and around the camp.
We saw empty beds, wooden planks, dirt patches, grassy fields and a sandy slope to the lake. My son saw memories of good times with new friends. He talked excitedly about evening programs and color war, happy gatherings and favorite meals. We understood immediately why he wanted to return. Our fears of the worst had limited our ability to hear his fondness for the best of his experience. And of course, he hadn’t shared everything with us, because kids so rarely do.
That gave us insight into how we parent. We can ask questions and have family dinners. We can be attentive and even review their texts and emails with them. But there will always be things that happen in our kids’ lives that exclude us. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s what we should want for our kids.
Camp is where [my children] grow in ways that they can’t when I’m looking over their shoulders. It’s an opportunity to meet new friends, become new people and build confidence doing things they never do at home.
Many of my peers think I’m a little crazy for sending all three of my children away each summer. We live, after all, in a bubble wrap parenting age, a time when a working South Carolina mother was arrested for letting her 9-year-old play in a park alone while she was on the job. When Reason.com asked its readers if leaving a kid that young alone to play should be criminalized, a whopping 63 percent said that it should be. Forty-three percent said the law should also apply to 12-year-olds. Ironic, since playgrounds have become so safe that they lack any real fun for kids.
But it is precisely because I love my children that I send them away. Camp is where they grow in ways that they can’t when I’m looking over their shoulders. It’s an opportunity to meet new friends, become new people and build confidence doing things they never do at home. It’s safe, with counselors and professionals guiding and overseeing their movements, but there is plenty of time to figure things out on their own, get into trouble, collude with friends and, yes, get hurt, all of which benefits their development.
We owe it to our children to let them experience life without us. Only then can they become the people we truly want them to be. Once upon a less overprotective time, isn’t that how we grew into adults, too?
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