Sending My Son to Sleep Away Camp and Other Lessons of Parenting

7 years ago
Close-up view of a picnic basket, a kettle and a plate full of sandwiches

A lot of hullabaloo has been made of helicopter parents and their children off attending sleep-away camp. Contraband cell phones, specially trained staff, and, God forbid, allowed e-mail communication, all in an effort to proffer parental peace of mind, have been criticized as the decline of civilization as we know it.

The headlines  have threatened that our children are hampered by parents unwilling to let go and that a generation of overly coddled young adults will soon to be unleashed on society at large.
My son, William, spent a month at his first sleep away camp last summer. Like most others, his camp refused cell phones and made a show of ripping the umbilicus of technology from the campers on their first day; no cell phones, iPods, portable playstations or the like allowed. Letters, old fashioned pen and ink, were the only form of communication acceptable at Camp Kieve.

While he hiked and canoed and climbed mountains, I worried and fretted and even cried. Was he safe? Was he making friends? Did he wash his underwear? Did he eat his vegetables? I have spent fourteen years filling my time, my mind, my heart, with the many ways I might and must ensure my son’s well being. To cut that umbilicus in such a sudden and, I believed, unwarranted manner, I would have done anything to hear his voice. I even craved a familiar two-word text message from him, the likes of which I had complained about just weeks before. Pen and ink held a certain charm, but did not deliver the immediacy of connection to which I have become accustomed.

His first letter shared that he was safe, had new friends, had done the laundry and even liked the food. His second letter detailed a hike to one the highest peaks in all of Maine with sightings of bald eagles and crazy alternative mountain climbers who were obviously partaking of more than the beautiful views. His third hinted at the man he will become, including insight and self-awareness in ways I haven’t heard from him before. In short, as he spent a month learning who he is and who he wants to be, I spent that same month pining away for him, or at least my illusion of him.

When I picked William up at camp to bring him home to Annisquam (our summer sanctuary north of Boston), it become immediately clear that my son left a boy and returned, perhaps not a man, but more than the child he once was. In the weeks since he came back to us, he was helpful, kind, patient with his siblings, and eager to participate in all that we were doing. He traded in his wilderness camp for the familiarity of the yacht club and soon it was clear that he was bored. This place that I offer up to him as a sanctuary from the dangers, the challenges, the relentless intensity of everyday life, no longer satisfied his need for the opportunity to grow.

I have heard from other Squamers that children drift away for awhile but most eventually come back. I can see that Camp Annisquam, for all its simplicity, is simply too simple for William right now. The beach, the cove, the tennis and sailing are too leisurely for a young man who wants to move forward as fast as he can. It is clear I can no longer entice him with the daily care of his most basic needs. The last thing society needs is another young man whose mommy hovers.  As I look to the summers ahead of us, I know that I will need to let him go, let him experience other places, other adventures, while I will remain here, gently unraveling the illusion of connection, one cord at a time.

This essay originally appeared on my blog, Invincible Summer. For more on sending your child to camp, read some of these bloggers:

  • Kathy McManus writes about the benefit of sending kids to summer camp (for parents and kids);
  • Maria Lando, the Math Mom, brings some much needed sanity to the cost of summer camps. She says we should forget camp and send our kids around the world (if only!);
  • Katie Granju reminds us that for many working parents, sleep away camp is the only solution to the need for summer child care. Extra points if the camp is fun, educational, and worthwhile!


Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you?


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