Reality Check: Dealing With a Summer Camp Crisis

Last week, Mike Steere shared some tips to help parents survive their child's first year at sleepaway camp. This week, he attempts to pacify his own miserable camper, and finds out it isn't as easy as it looks.

    Photo: Philip Lange/Shutterstock

Not a week ago, at this very keyboard, I passed on advice about what parents should do to avoid ruining sleepaway camp for their offspring. It came from a guy supremely in the know, the director of an upmarket East Coast supercamp, and everything he said was confirmed by other longtime pros. I heard the words right where the rubber meets the road, at the actual camp. My ten-year-old only daughter (henceforth referred to as TOD), soon on her way to ballet camp, even sat in on the interview with me.

On our side of the table, we had a couple seasons of family sleepaway experience—three if you want to count TOD's then-upcoming week of sadismo Russian ballet camp in the Poconos, followed by a couple weeks of traditional YMCA outdoorsiness up in the Adirondacks. So, it seemed like, experience spoke to experience, in a sort of smug echo chamber. I’m pretty sure my kid and I both felt like all the stuff the camp guy talked about—anxiety, homesickness, parental craziness making things worse—had nothing to do with us.  

Take, for example, one key piece of advice we received, that parents shouldn't offer to rescue their kids from camp. Who in the world would tell his/her child to call, just call, if camp wasn’t working out? And who, getting a “Please, please come get me!” would even consider doing it? Think of the life lessons—going the distance, self-reliance, resilience—you’re un-teaching, maybe forever.

And then, last Sunday, TOD called us, crying to come home from ballet camp. Let me remind you that she sat down beside me and got all the same advice that I did.

No way would we do it. My wife concurred, pointing out that the girl made the go/no go decision herself. TOD was jazzed about going, too, and seemed just fine at dropoff.

To be fair to our girl, she’s coming off an ankle sprain that still hurts when she does too much, which is pretty much what they do at ballet camp. But this isn’t news, and now she’s skipping some of the toughest training and icing the ankle, per doctor’s orders. My paternal gut instinct says the crisis is more about being mortified by partial sidelining and subpar dancing.

After a couple of days, the “Come get me!” texts have tailed off some. We even got a reluctant admission of having some fun, kind of.

Note, please, that Mom and I have never made, or even hinted at, a “We’ll come get you, honey,” deal. Tor three years running, the girl has known the Sleepaway Rule: You start, you finish. And I know that I’m supposed to feel all Good Dad about sticking to the deal.

But here's the thing: I don’t. Even now, on the upswing, I feel awful about our little girl crying, and I feel like a jerk for not making everything instantly okay.

The kid’s a mess. I’m a mess. (My wife, bless her, doesn’t do messes). And we know better, especially fresh from a session with the Sleep-Away Camp Guru.

There’s a lesson here about the limits of advice, especially as it pertains to parenting and growing up. Since we are assailed by advice, from long before parenthood, it’s important to remember that it’s not a silver bullet. You can know it, believe it, try your best to live by it, and still get into the same damn mess the advice is supposed to keep you out of.

Camp will work out fine, right?

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