Sending your child to camp helps

Anxious parents are able to give up control

A mother called me. Her son is 15. Has friends but not many. Doesn’t get together much with them. Sits on the computer all weekend. Kind of like me at that age only I was reading those antiques called books, and my mother’s most common form of address to me was: “Can’t you ever get your nose out of a book?”

This mother was distraught, as I’m sure my mother was. The worry is that the socially awkward, lazy teenager will never get it together. He/she is not going to be on the hockey team, let alone captain it. He/she is neither popular nor athletic, and the parents desperately want one (or both) of those for their child.

As parents, we all want that. We can’t help it. Wanting our child to be a certain way seems to be in our parental DNA.

And that’s the real reason for summer camp. It’s for us, the parents, as much as for the kids.

I include myself in this group. It’s almost as if we love our children too deeply and too passionately to let them be who they are. As I said to the mom on the phone: “Is he doing all right in school?… Is he doing drugs?… Drinking? Being more than normally hostile for his age? Staying out all night?” Her answer was no to all questions.

So I told her to back off and let him be. But that is perhaps an unattainable goal. And that, precisely, is why kids in general and adolescents especially, need and love camp. Camp is the antidote to parental attempts to control our childrens’ lives. We think they love camp because of activities or friends, but we’re wrong. They love it because we’re not there.

And that is the great value of summer camp — more needed now than for any previous generation of children because we, their parents, are more control obsessed than they need us to be, and they need time off from our craziness. Why are we like that? For one, we belong to the first generation of professional parents. We have blogs, speech makers, parenting and school consultants and a section in the Kindle bookstore with 32,172 titles!

All these experts are telling us how to do it … perfectly. Which is, of course, impossible and makes us simultaneously well-informed and overcontrolling, thanks to the illusion of possible parenting perfection.

Our anxiety about the world is the second reason for being control freaks. Is the world a scarier place than the one we grew up in? Is there more abuse, more bullying? Are there more attacks on children? Nobody knows the answer to those questions but for sure we have more information on those perils because we’re parenting in the instant info age — which raises our anxiety level, which in turn raises our desire for control.

The problem of information is the third reason for our difficulty. We know too much, and our appetite for info about our kids is insatiable. This is not helpful. Our addiction to info about them does not make their lives better — or ours. It likely has the opposite effect on both us and them. Take the story of the bicycle.

My young adult daughter rides her bike everywhere, including in the winter. When she comes home for dinner, I experience anxiety about her riding her bike back downtown, and I make her call me when she arrives. She says I’m silly because the other six nights of the week I neither know her whereabouts nor require a phone call when she gets home. She’s right. In this case (and in too many others) my knowledge does not make her safer.

At summer camp, kids get to cut the umbilical cord. They love and miss us because we are not there to annoy them by trying to control them. When kids go to camp and parents cede control to other adults who let them be who they are, kids become resourceful and independent. They grow confidence in their independence, which is hard to grow when somebody is always on your case.

This is the great gift of camp.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO