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Jul 22 2013

Overnight Camp is About More Than Just Having Fun

By at 12:19 pm

roasting marshmallows over fireMany, many people posted a link on Facebook to a Huffington Post Parents blogpost entitled, “Open Letter to My Daughter, the Camper.” In the piece, which is certainly nothing if not loving and fun, the father writing gives advice to his first-time overnight camper daughter. He tells her the proper way to roast a marshmallow, to try new things, to be herself and–repeatedly–to have fun.

This blogpost was a lot like a marshmallow in many ways–sweet and delicious, if ultimately insubstantial. I really don’t mean to come down like a wet blanket over the parade. But my boys are leaving for three weeks in a few days, and I find that I’m thinking about this a lot: what are my hopes for them? And what should their hopes be for themselves?

It’s the longest amount of time my boys have ever been away from home–and that’s saying a lot. I divorced their dad when they were toddlers and the boys have done the back-and-forth divorce vacation tango for more years than they haven’t. Moreover, it’s the first time they’ve ever been away without at least one parent within yelling range. That’s a big, big deal–both for me and for them.

For me, then, it’s not just about them having fun (although of course, I hope that they will). It’s not just about remembering to shower every once in a while. It’s not just about not forgetting bug repellent and brushing their teeth with toothpaste. I’m cautiously optimistic that all those things will happen–but, while fun to read about, none of those things is what is really important.

Camp is not just about being themselves: it’s about becoming themselves, and seeing who those selves can be. In these three weeks of being away from their parents, it’s finally time for my boys to show, without the comforts or crutches of home, who they really are.

I want them to have this chance to find out who they are, without the ever-present compass of a parent to show them what is right and wrong. I want them to test themselves. This is the moment when we see if they can tell those things for themselves, and if my parenting hopes and aspirations have taken root and produced real, small shoots of independent people.

What’s more important to me than them having fun? Them being kind. I don’t want them to just be themselves–I want them to test themselves and try to become their best selves.

At the moment when it would be easier to ignore the bunkmate who is clearly shy, I want them to be the kid who goes over to them and extends a hand of friendship. At the moment when everyone is grumbling about the bad weather postponing their hike, I want them to be the kid who changes the mood in the cabin for the better.

And at the time when it is hard to make the right choice, whether out of fear or peer pressure or laziness, I want them to get up and do what is right.

None of this is quite as forwarding-friendly as a letter evoking s’mores, ghost stories, shower caddies, and lost items. What’s more, what I’m asking is a lot harder to accomplish, too. But it’s so very worth it.

“Where there is no man and a man is needed, strive to be that man.” (Pirkei Avot) These kids of mine, at 8 and 9, are pretty far from being men, and I have the extremely embarrassing anecdotes I’ll never whip out on line to prove it.

But I hope these three weeks will bring them closer to who they are and who they become.

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