Lahey: Camp Rules

Jun 25, 2013

Three years ago, when he was eleven, my son Ben set down a very specific parental code of conduct we’d be expected to follow at summer camp drop-off. We could say our goodbyes at home, but once we arrived at camp, any displays of affection, attempts to make his bed, arrange his things, or force premature familiarity with his cabin mates would be strictly prohibited.

We could hang around during registration, watch while they checked him for lice, help him lug his bags to his cabin, and shake hands with his counselor, but after that, our parenting duties were complete. We were expected to say goodbye, and go away, thank you very much.

My husband was taken aback by Ben’s request, but I wasn't. I totally understood his yearning for independence. I went to camp as a child, and as much as I adored my parents, I, too, loved for the autonomy I found during those glorious summer months away from home. I missed my parents, of course, but in their absence, I passed my swim test, dove off the high dive, ran my first 5k, spent three nights alone in a dark forest, and shared my first kiss.

The fact that Ben is eager to watch me walk away from him is a sign of strength – both of our bond, and of his sense of self. According to psychologist Michael Thompson, childhood requires an endpoint, that it’s a parent’s job to raise children who can leave, children secure enough to turn away from the safety of a parents’ embrace and look toward the adventures and challenges to be found beyond.

So when I drove my son to camp last week, we did not have to review his rules. He knew I would remember and honor them. We parked, he was checked for lice, I met his counselor, and while the other parents moved about the cabin, making their children’s beds and suggesting where to store their flashlights and extra sunscreen, I quickly took my leave with a wave and a good-bye.

On the way back to the car, my younger son slipped his hand into mine, something he hardly ever does anymore.

“I think I’d like to come to camp next year,” he said.

“Really?” I said, picturing him running around among those hulking adolescents.

“Yep,” he nodded. “I think I’ll be big enough next year.”

And with that, he let go of my hand and ran ahead to gather up a pile of pine needles he’d spotted just off the path. As I watched him attempt to stuff two handfuls of these needles into his pockets, I realized that next year, he’ll be almost as old as his brother was the first time he went to camp. So just maybe, if I do my job right, he will be big enough next year. Big enough to want me to say goodbye, and go away, thank you very much.