Quick, before you read any further, close your eyes for a moment and try to recall your happiest childhood memory. What springs to mind? What were you doing? Who were you with?
If you’re like me, then the memories that jumped out at you were moments with your friends, not your parents. And we’re not alone. According to Michael Thompson, PhD, author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow, when he speaks with parent groups and goes through this exercise with them, only about 20 percent will recollect special family vacations or Christmas mornings. The vast majority—we’re talking about 80 percent here—recall those times involving peers, when they were out exploring the world, having adventures, independent and away from their parents.
Yes, away from us.
I’ve been thinking about Thompson’s excellent book quite a bit these days, because my 9-year-old daughter is eagerly gearing up for her first-ever session at sleepaway camp. Just like her, I started going to sleepaway camp the summer after fourth grade, and I loved it. In fact, some of my most cherished memories were those weeks each summer. The funny in-jokes! The cool counselors! The cute boys! Canoe trips! S’mores! So much friendship-bracelet-making and shirt tie-dying! I’m excited for her to have this time, but I’m a little nervous, too. What if she hates it?
What if she loves it?
My mother once told me that my summer at sleepaway camp was her first realization that parenting wouldn’t always be about that “constant need.” I didn’t understand then what she meant, but I do now. My little girl has grown from a tiny baby who needed 24/7 care to a kid competent enough to be away from home for two weeks (granted, with plenty of adult supervision, we’re not talking Wild here). It’s Amelia who asked to attend camp this year, probably because she’s heard me talk about my own love of camp and how important it was to my childhood.
That’s what I wanted, right? Right? For my child to learn independence and to want to take the baby steps necessary to someday make her own way in the world? Thompson argues persuasively that time away from school and from families allows a child to discover her inner strength and have the kinds of challenging experiences that provide essential life skills. Most of all, he insists, freedom from our hovering, no matter how well-intentioned it is, is a gift we can give our kids. As he puts it, “We cannot keep our children perfectly safe, but we can drive them crazy trying.”
Maybe Amelia will get to camp and be so homesick she’ll beg to come home after three tear-filled days. I’m ready for that. But I also need to be prepared for her to love it so much she’ll be sad—and possibly mad—when we arrive to pick her up.
While I’ll be anxiously wondering how she’s doing and worrying each time the phone rings during those July days, my mind full of all the things that can go wrong, it’s quite possible my kid won’t be thinking about me at all. And that’s okay. I hope those two weeks will be thrilling and freeing for her. Even if for me, they’ll be bittersweet, too.