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The Sleep-Away Camp Challenge

May 8, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Camp requires one of the biggest parenting challenges of all -- leaving our kids alone.

When my 14-year-old nephew went to sleep-away camp for 6 weeks this summer, he was allowed one phone call home. It was a very short, mostly monosyllabic "Camp is good; talk to you soon" conversation.

My teenage daughters get slightly more phone time but pressure from the line behind them limits the duration of the call. It's a variation on my nephew's theme with a few more inquiries about the rest of the family -- niece and nephew in particular -- and Good Shabbos thrown in.

Not so the girls at Lake Bryn Mawr Camp in Pennsylvania, whose parents apparently call with such frequency and have so many demanding requests that the camp now employs a counselor for the parents (no boating, swimming or arts and crafts necessary).

And I feel sorry for all of them -- the parents, the kids, and particularly the besieged and beleaguered counselor!

One of the big opportunities of camp is for our children to learn a small degree of independence, to discover what they can and cannot do, what they really enjoy, and perhaps what they are less fond of. We thwart their growth by robbing them of this experience -- by complaining about their activities (or, as in one case in this NY Times story, arranging private ones), by monitoring their happiness minute by minute (some parents can now view the cabins and campers via online photos and disturbed to see that sometimes little Susie is not smiling -- is that never true at home?) and worst of all, by bringing them home when they fuss.

I've endured some pretty painful calls (clearly violating the rules about not calling home) from kids who ended up having the best time of all. And even for those who don't, the sense of failure in leaving early is more damaging than a few boring or lonely weeks.

At camp, kids learn some basic cleanup skills (can I brag about my daughter's bunks 10+ neatness grade?), some laundry skills and most of all, some interpersonal and conflict resolution skills. They are thrown together with the other girls 24/7 and they have to work their issues out (even when someone dares to touch their things or sit on their bed!). They learn to negotiate the complicated weaving of new friendships and old ones. They learn about kindness and about sharing (woe to the camper who hoards a care package!). They learn about team spirit and how to really create unity through everyone's involvement.

And they have fun. Part of that is due to the lack of parents in the picture (like it or not, we are background players here). By calling the camp constantly (everyday for some of the parents profiled), by creating individual visiting days and specialized out of or in camp experiences, these concerned parents are actually depriving their offspring of the essential aspects of the camp experience.

In a misguided effort to help their children, they are hurting them. They come less mature instead of more grown up.

It doesn't have to be that way. Camp can be fantastic. Your home can reverberate for months afterward with the stories, the cheers, the songs and the phone calls. All it takes is one of the biggest parenting challenges of all -- just leaving our kids alone. And if their team doesn't win color war, well...they'll get over it. In fact, they've already forgotten about it.

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