Why Is The Reentry To Real Life After Camp So Hard?
I didn't send them off like this, I swear!
As I write this, my kids (9, 11 & 13) have all just gotten back from various camps and my goodness I did NOT send them away like this. They are SO tired. And grumpy. And sensitive. And sweary. They are uncharacteristically obnoxious, especially the 11-year-old.
Let me give you an example, from my 11 year old. Both of us notice the forgotten scrap of paper at the same time. At first, darling boy doesn’t realize I’m watching him considering the little bit of nothing — how he takes his time, slowly rolling and squishing and more rolling. Then he senses me watching him, and his actions shift from absentminded to calculated. He spends long moments painstakingly scrunching the paper up into the tiniest possible bit. Then, with studied nonchalance, a quick flick sends the minuscule piece off the table and into the distance.
This is deliberate. He KNOWS this will trigger me. A smile plays on the side of his mouth as he waits for my reaction. Despite knowing better, I bite. “Who do you think is going to pick that up?” I ask, irritated but still calm.
His shrug galls me and rather than letting it go, I continue, “Or is it ok with you to just assume that someone, not you, will get to it, eventually?”
What’s new about this interaction compared to similar ones from as recently as the previous week is the action itself is not satisfying enough. He now takes the opportunity to refuse to go and pick it up. “It’s not mine,” he (truthfully, infuriatingly) claims. This is classic middle school attitude and, I swear, would not have happened before camp.
As a dedicated outdoors family, camps have always basically been a requirement in my household. And yet, I forgot how awful it is when kids first come back. That’s because, in the past, I’ve usually gone with them. This year, all three went off on their own and I was fresh and awake enough to experience the full brunt of their rocky reentry into the household.
Every single thing I ask them to do these first days back is like pulling teeth. Actually, worse than pulling teeth because, as far as I know, they don’t normally try to dissuade the dentist from doing their job. I find myself insisting that yes, we do need to unpack the dirty clothes; a typical nonissue, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, recently turned into a mess of finger-pointing and whining.
I audaciously suggest the wet tent absolutely cannot spend a night still in its stuff sack, not even one. Foot dragging ensues. Days later, my son wonders why he should have to refold my tent (that HE used). “What harm is it doing, really, laid out in the living room drying?” he asked, somewhere between genuinely and passive aggressively. It isn’t so much the first steps of these moments that bother me, but their frequency and the added second and third refusals.
I’ve been a middle school teacher since the 90s, much longer than my preteens have been alive. I know kids are generally more cooperative and more pleasant for literally everyone else than they are at home. I know they are so awful right now because for an entire residential week they have been on their best behavior and have been keeping all of the needs, all of the questions, all of the uncertainties inside. I even know I should be flattered and comforted by the fact I am still their “safe” person, where they try out new vocabulary and new behaviors.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t so easy to apply what I know professionally to my own kids.
I have to consciously cool down and take a moment to reflect: My son has been out and about among mostly older peers for a week — without a ton of sleep. I breathe and remember that while right now he’s driving me crazy, there is a line between sleep deprivation and actual personality traits. That even though it feels hard, especially in heated moments where everyone feeling triggered and snarly, most acting out truly is only temporary. And I can choose to overreact and alienate, or I can calmly provide some comfortable places for them to sleep it off.
These relatively minor challenges and hiccups are a way for them to experiment with independence. They are also an opportunity to discuss with our children how some words or ways of being are ok with some people (like peers) but are not welcome with everyone in every situation, for example at the dinner table. And that we must always keep in mind the situation and what is appropriate for the moment.
These are developmentally (and household!) specific, naturally, but I am here to tell you that if your kid is brave enough to act out in front of you — that is a GOOD sign! It means they are willing to share with you the self they are trying to discover, and you are still a part of the process. Worry instead when they don’t have anything to tell you — or worse, to “show” you from their time away.
In any case, good luck getting them to pick up the flipping paper.
Jackie Carroll is a teacher and mom of five from SD, WA, and just over a decade of Belgium thrown in. She lives on the western coast of Finland.