In the old days, “independence” was something that happened to kids naturally. Children were swept into adulthood by responsibility–you grow up fast when you are responsible for the farm that gives your family food–or the tides of history. A kid has no choice, after all, but to grow up fast when their parents sent them to escape Russian Cossacks on a ship bound for America. They had no choice but to grow up fast when they were separated from parents by war, sometimes forever.
These days, in our coddled existences, we simulate circumstances of independence-generating separation by sending our children to overnight camp. These are supervised places chock full to the brim of fun where our children can, for a few weeks, live their lives without us parents around.
My boys are going to overnight camp for the first time in a few weeks, and I hope the experience will be a great one for them. The experience of getting them ready for camp, though, has made me wonder about just how independence-producing camp can possibly be.
This is something I wonder repeatedly as I go to various stores to procure the requisite first-time-away items–sleeping bags, duffel bags, toothbrush/soap caddies, stationery. I lug these things up to the room I’m using as packing headquarters. I spend evenings online shopping for the best-priced hiking quick-dry pants and ponchos. I let my toddler draw pictures with crayons as I write their names in 30 pairs of underwear with a Sharpie.
Notice who is doing all these things. Hint: it is not the kids who are going to camp.
Packing for camp–even for three weeks–is somewhat akin to packing for a trip to Mars. I find that making sure they have bug repellent, sunscreen, and clipboards, all marked with their names, is, in a weird way, allowing me to express my love for them. I check off the items on the list, feel organized and secure that my boys will have what they need, and tell myself all will be well. I’m sure moms packed for young Yankel before he set out for Ellis Island too. Then I try not to think about the article in The New Yorker about Lyme disease.
Still, I keep looking for places to draw the line between maternal coddling and self-reliance. I will make sure they have the toothpaste (maybe they’ll even use it! = optimism). But when it comes to clothes, I’m going to make sure they pack it themselves, and write their own names on the labels. A small step for kid-kind all around, to be sure, but they’ve got to know I’m not the valet. I’m not unpacking when I get to camp, either.
“Should I address and stamp the envelopes I’m putting in his bag?” a friend of mine asked me as she was packing her son’s camp duffel. “Because if I don’t do that, will he send me a single letter all summer?”
I get it. I really do. if I don’t send pre-addressed postcards, I wonder if my boys will write to me at all–and they’re going to a camp that doesn’t allow those prison-esque five minute phone calls. But if I do send pre-addressed postcards, let’s face it: aren’t I opening up the same bag of shit I open every time I grit my teeth and make their lunches/beds/lives easier??
Won’t their future selves and spouses thank me if I make an effort to take a little step back in the name of making them a little more self-sufficient? A friend of a friend took a route I’m going to take too: she had her sons write out the addresses on the postcards before camp–thus teaching them self-reliance, preparedness, and responsibility. And giving me just one less thing to do.
Camp isn’t “independence” so much as it’s independence with training wheels. There are those who believe training wheels on bikes are the crutches of wimps. Maybe so. It’s my hope that next summer, if I handle this right, they’ll be able to sail off on their own two wheels, with only a small push from me.