Son Goes to Camp, Dad Cries

Filed under: Weird But True, Social & Emotional Growth: Tweens

Sleepaway camp: Who's really missing whom? Illustration: Christopher Healy

I was against it from the start.

My wife and I had always assumed we'd send our son to sleepaway camp some day. I just didn't think we needed to start this summer, when he was still 9.

She disagreed.

She heard that a couple of other kids in his class (boys, like my son, who'll be fifth-graders in the fall) were starting sleepaway this summer, and she felt that our son -- let's call him Fellow -- should start as well. Out of my earshot, she sold him on the concept and so, for the good of family unity, I got on board, researching websites to find camps that fit our various criteria, all within a few hours of our New York home. Fellow watched the promotional DVDs, looked at the pamphlets, made his choice and was pretty happy about it.

Not me.

I knew in my gut that he wasn't ready. He's always been considered young in his class, partly because he's a December kid, but mostly because he's not as socially mature as the rest of the crowd. This year, as the other boys entered the tween stage -- in which they begin to interact almost exclusively by teasing each other -- Fellow just didn't go along with the crowd. He took the ribbing pretty hard, and by the time the rest of the boys got used to razzing each other in the playground, he was having full-scale freakouts, storming away from Little League games, starting fights and generally spilling his emotions onto the field.

"And now you're going to send him away to camp for four weeks!?" I repeatedly asked my wife. While taking his struggles as seriously as I did, she said she was sure that camp would be "good for him."

Not me.

Fellow and I are close; to be honest, probably closer than I am with either of his younger siblings. Since he was little, it's been me he's come to for comfort when things go badly. I was a work-at-home dad for much of his toddler and preschool years, which explains a lot of the bond. During a meltdown, for example, he eventually comes to me and asks, "Can you sit with me and help me calm down?" And I do. When he misbehaves with a coach, a sitter or a relative, I take him aside, talk to him and show him more reasonable options.

But at camp? In a cabin with 21 other boys crowded together, competing on the sports field, then grabbing each other's stuff? With counselors no older than the babysitter college kids we have at home who struggle to get him to behave? How could they manage him? He'd need me.

Wouldn't he?

And then, just a couple of weeks before camp, the cloud seemed to pass. He fought less with friends. He came home from school one day and proudly told us how he'd ignored and walked away from a kid who called him an "a-hole." He apologized when he was caught trying to sneak computer or TV time when he wasn't allowed, instead of his usual arguing about it.

So, when the time came to deliver him to camp this week, he strolled right into the bunk and started talking about baseball and the World Cup with the other boys. Soon he had invited two other guys up to his top bunkbed for a card game. I saw him put a card down on the pile, then take it back, saying, "No, I meant this card!" When another boy looked at him askance, he paused for a second, saying, "Oh, just kidding," and replaced the original card. It was the self-policing that camp directors always claim happens in the closed confines of the cabin.

Maybe there is something to it.

Later he grabbed his mitt and invited the other guys out for a game of catch. I had to call him over to say goodbye and exchange I-love-yous.

It's been three days now. The camp doesn't allow phone calls or emails, so I'm awaiting his first note home. I sent two letters before he even left home, and two more since, each packaged with some comic books. At night, I imagine him lying in his bed, without any of his "sleepy animals," which still cover his bed at home, and without getting his "two minutes" from me when I lie with him for just that long to help ease him into sleep, as I've done since he was a toddler. I imagine him struggling to manage his emotions without the support I give him every day.

I don't imagine it's easy.

He's going to have some tough moments, some rough days. Somehow, he'll have to get through them without me, and at some level, maybe selfishly, I think that's unfair to him. Why should he have to endure it?

But for the next four weeks, he's on his own. And so am I. I will wake up in the morning and look at the sports pages without him here to review the baseball standings with me. I won't be playing our nightly games of cribbage. I won't get my two minutes.

Sure, on the bright side, with Fellow away, and the younger kids going off to day camp early in the morning, I'm getting to the gym almost every day, unfathomable during the school year with a full-time job and three different children at three different schools. Maybe I'll lose a few pounds. Maybe not. I'm more curious about what kind of son will come back to me from camp. Will he be happier or hardened? Cheerful or bitter? Will he still grasp his sleepy animals and ask for two minutes? And if he doesn't, how will I feel about that?

I feel guilty admitting it, but I fear that at least part of me will feel like I've lost something. My happy camper.

Joe Parente is the ParentDish nom de plume, a pen name, used by our editorial team when we want to spill our dirty little secrets but still keep our dignity, and families, intact.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.