Visit to the Ontario Camp Association conference in Toronto
February 1, 2016
In mid-January I flew up to Toronto to speak to the Ontario Camp Association annual conference from my book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grown. The combination of the words “camp” and “Ontario” has special significance for me because it was at a canoe tripping camp in that Canadian province that I first achieved a measure of the independence for which I yearned as a boy. The summer after I turned fourteen I attended Camp Keewaydin, a legendary camp on Lake Temagami, three hundred miles north of Toronto.
My parents, my mother especially, were frustrated by my adolescent attitude and my penchant for argumentative “back talk.” I had had a tough eighth grade year at the Collegiate School for Boys, an academically demanding private boys’ school on the upper West Side, which I had attended since the age of three . I was tired of the school, my parents and the incessant demands for performance. Today a student might say that he or she was “stressed out.” I was just pissed off. I think my parents were sending me away to camp to have me shaped up, perhaps more respectful. What happened was that I grew stronger, braver and more confident. I carried a canoe on my shoulders over some difficult portages and I learned to paddle all day, also how to set up a tent, how to cook, scrub pots, tolerate hordes of mosquitoes and get along with people I would not necessarily have chosen as friends.
When anyone looks back on those experiences that made him or her into an adult a few important moments come to mind: something away from home, away from parents, something involving challenge, risk and friends. For me, summer sleepaway camps have traditionally offered exactly those elements, and I decry all the intrusions on camp life which allows parents to follow their children more closely, including: hand-delivered emails from parents through the camp front office, access to electronics for part of a day, and the constant anxious supervision which characterizes the lives of children today.
One camp director told me that when one of his campers did not immediately respond to an email message from his mother, she and his father drove up to camp that night and were banging on the boys’ cabin door at 6:30 a.m. the next morning—waking up everyone in the process— to verify that he was alive. I joked with the director that every camps needs to hook every camper up to a respiration monitor with an online link hooked up to every camper at night so that parents can see at any moment if their child is breathing. Other camp directors told me that more and more camps are putting up cameras on poles and trees so that parents can go online and watch camp life in real time. My reaction is, “NO, NO, NO, that’s life turned into The Truman Show!” If you want your child to become truly independent, you cannot be looking over his or her shoulder at every moment, not even by camera, or may be especially by camera.
So, I always welcome a chance to speak to camp audiences from the first chapter of Homesick and Happy which details the “Eight Things You Cannot Do for Your Children (But Wish You Could).” You cannot make them happy, you cannot make them confident, you cannot choose their friends for them and you cannot make them independent. You have to open the door, step aside and let them walk out into an adventure of their own. I will always be grateful that my parents did that for me.