I took the escalator stairs two-by-two, impatient to get to the gate where my daughter’s plane would be landing any minute. This was her first summer at sleepaway camp, and for the last two weeks I’d eagerly checked the mailbox for news about her bunkmates, camp food, and all the cool stuff she was doing. Most days all I got was the same old furniture catalogs, bills, and an occasional flyer from a local real estate agent. The few letters she did send were super short: “I like my counselors. We went swimming. I have hot chocolate for breakfast every day.”
Maybe the lack of quantity and detail meant she was too busy having a good time to sit down and write about it. Or…maybe she wasn’t having a good time at all and just didn’t want to tell me.
As soon as I saw her, I waved madly and ran to scoop her up in a mama bear hug.
“I missed you!” I said. “How was camp?”
“I want to go for the whole month next year,” she said, her hug for me a bit less enthusiastic than mine for her. No “I missed you too.” No tears of homecoming joy.
Hmm. We pulled apart, and that’s when I took a good, long look at my daughter. Highlights streaked her chestnut hair, her cheeks glowed, and I swear she was half an inch taller. The 9 ½-year-old in front of me was cool, collected, and wholly content—sort of like the Zen version of the slightly loud, sometimes clingy, teary-eyed kid I’d put on the plane two weeks ago. Who was this girl, and what had she done with my daughter? Then it dawned on me: My daughter had just had a weeks-long experience without me, an experience that was hers and hers alone. As I learned more about camp and witnessed the changes in my daughter over the rest of the summer, I learned that this was a good thing.
Sending kids to sleepaway camp is a big deal. First of all, it’s emotional for both parents and kids. Being away from home and family for more than a day or two can be scary. Then there’s figuring out which camp is the right fit your child, and finally, the cost, which can rival that of a swank family vacation, depending on how many weeks you sign up for. So, yes, the question of sleepaway camp can be challenging, but there’s also great value in giving your child an experience that’s all her own.
My daughter is one of three girls. Camp is the only place where she can exist entirely as herself and not as someone’s younger or older sister. This gives her the chance to make choices about interests, opinions, and people without sibling—or parental—influence. Being thrown into a cabin with 11 other girls she didn’t know meant my daughter had to quickly learn how to get along with girls she might not have a lot in common with and make an effort to connect and make friends with those she did. While the counselors are ready to help if things get sticky, campers are usually encouraged to negotiate disagreements on their own. This is a big change from the adult refereeing that often goes on in my house. My daughters have come back from camp with increased confidence, the ability to handle challenging social situations, and the desire to try new activities, even though that might mean screwing up at first. These are crucial life skills that are put to the test in the Petri dish of camp.
Sleepaway camp isn’t only good for the kids. It’s also a welcome break for me, and the perfect antidote to the end-of-the-school-year chaos. Once my older girls leave for camp, the house is quieter, the daily schedule is more laid back, and I get to spend quality one-on-one time with my youngest daughter. In between working from home, I read, write, and take walks. I do a lot more relaxing and wondering and a lot less stressing and scurrying. This time apart from my kids is rejuvenating. It helps me appreciate them and motherhood more than I do when we’re pressed up together in the day to day.
The slower pace also does wonders for my marriage. My husband and I have more breathing room with fewer children between us. We reacquaint ourselves with the ancient art of uninterrupted conversation or simply bask in the relative peace and quiet of an emptier house. We put the little one to bed early and settle in to each other for the night instead of groping in the dark for a quick goodnight kiss.
As my girls and I consult the camp packing lists for this year, the excitement builds for us all. They can’t wait to roam the grounds with their friends, raid the kitchen at midnight, spend lots of time outside, and melt into their carefree selves. As for me, I get to appreciate the time apart from my kids, hang out more with my husband, and take the days a little more slowly. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.