My nine–year-old son had a milestone moment last summer. He attended sleepaway camp 288 miles from our Darien home in the “Live Free or Die” State of New Hampshire.
My reasons for sending him to camp were twofold. I wanted him to go outside his comfort zone and try something completely new. Camp had an array of mini taster courses: canoeing, fencing, zip-lining, tubing to name just a few. Moreover, I wanted him to know what it’s like to be on his own, to experience taking care of himself and making his own choices. Up to this point my son had led a pretty sheltered life.
My son saw the camp brochure and was enthusiastic about going. I felt confident that he was ready and happily released him into the wilderness (both figuratively and literally).
According to camp policy, no contact between parents and campers is allowed during the camper’s first week. So it was with great anticipation and a swarm of butterflies in our guts that his dad and I had our first phone call on day seven with our first-time camper.
“Hey buddy,” his dad said. “How are you doing?”
“Hi Dad,” a small voice responded, the pitch so high, it reminded me just how young he still was. “I haaaate it. Can I come home?” Seconds later, he was gasping for air and crying so hard, the words tumbled out in staccato form. All I heard was, “So … can I ... [sniff, sniff] ... come … home... [sniff, gasp] ... please?”
My heart broke. I wanted to reach out and hug my little boy who goes from being very grown up conversing like someone way beyond his years, to suddenly acting his age by asking for a night light and doling out extra hugs at bedtime.
To make a long story short, after speaking with the camp director and teenage counselors, and two very bad nights of sleep, we decided to pull him out of camp early. I drove six hours each way to collect him.
Once reunited with my son, I saw that he was ecstatic to go home. Impressively he had packed up his bags himself, including the toiletries in the bathroom and all of his wet swim gear. He looked good. No tear streaked face. Just a couple of bug bites. For a second I wondered if I had been conned. Had the painful phone call been a well planned out dramatization to manipulate me into picking him up early because he missed his Wii games? At home my imagination had gone wild. I was worried SICK. Here I see that he was, well, perfectly fine.
Was I being a helicopter parent swooping in and rescuing a boy who did not need help? Did I deprive him of the opportunity to go through something really hard, and end on a high note, stronger, more resilient? Seeing how “fine” he was when I picked him up made me second guess our decision to pull him out early. I’ll never know. Hearing him so sad was unbearable. So I swooped in.
Camp was not a total success for us. Complete victory would have been staying the full duration of the camp and loving it. But camp was still definitely worthwhile.
In Homesick and Happy, Michael Thompson PhD writes: “Every child has to practice being independent and every parent has to practice letting his or her child be independent.” We did that! We practiced. My son had stayed ten solid days away from home, which is ten more than he had ever done in his life. I had let him go all by himself someplace I had never been to before. Another first.
And if while dribbling a ball together, I milk my son for details about camp, he’ll share positive memories with me. He liked hearing ghost stories around the campfire. He liked archery and “thought he was pretty good at it.” He loved using a real pick axe to break up stones at the mine. Clearly there were some gems in the camp experience. Best of all, he knows that he can be independent and I know he can take care of himself.