Kid Camp Nirvana: A Dad's Perspective on Summer Camp

By Bob Schwartz

When I saw my son with the brochure for the summer camp devoted strictly to skateboarding and cartoon drawing well, I knew this wasn't exactly the camp of my youth. Times have changed since I attended those generic multi-activity camps where I often had to endure my ineptitude at lanyard making (I almost tied off circulation in two of my fingers one summer with my less than brilliant braiding), before engaging in the thrill of water balloon scooter dodgeball.

As we waved goodbye, I tried to convince myself that he'd write us many enlightening and lengthy letters detailing the great time he was having. But I knew that was as likely as a bar of soap actually making physical contact with his body at any juncture over the subsequent two weeks.

As for mail, I just couldn't quite foresee that he'd be saying to his bunkmates, "Hey, you guys go ahead and have your ice cream and start playing mud volleyball without me. I'm just going to stay inside here and finish up this five page letter to my folks while I review my daily journal notes."

The first week passed without a single word from our camper. The mailman ultimately learned to rubber band our mail, sprint past the house and swiftly toss it towards our door so as to avoid being the recurring tackling dummy for an overanxious, information-starved parent who desperately needed a camp letter of some kind.

As camp progressed into the second week, I wondered if our son had now completely forgotten us or had simply lost all 72 stamped and addressed envelopes with which we'd equipped him. I thought maybe we should have sent pre-made post cards where he could construct a letter by simply circling the appropriate phrases:

1. a) Having lots of fun. b) I guess it beats school. c) Get me the heck outta here!

2. a) I miss everybody back home. b) See you soon. c) What was my brother's name again?

3. a) The food is great! b) I'm surviving on PB&J. c) I've lost 10 pounds and my shorts don't fit!

4. a) Love and kisses. b) Signing off from your wild and crazy son. c) Adios from your tattoo boy.

After what seemed like a decade, we did eventually receive a letter and were pleased to learn the following: He did indeed remember he had parents and two younger siblings. The sole reason he appeared to have finally written was to request that we, as quickly as possible, forward him his latest Nintendo Power magazine. He could still produce an almost legible four-syllable sentence that appeared, to me, to say: "Camp is a blast!" My more skeptical wife was left wondering if it were instead some new secret code actually reading "Damp in a mast!"

Certainly not a letter with as much detail as the U.S. Tax Code, but it was all we needed to know.

We did thereafter receive a picture of him along with a short, but revealing, note from his counselor. The photo showed our son with a fairly dirty t-shirt on inside out and backwards, his shoes untied with no socks on, his hair clearly had not been introduced to his comb for the prior eight days and chocolate cookie remnants surrounded his smiling mouth as he hammed it up for the camera. He appeared to be having the time of his life, which was indeed confirmed by his counselor's letter stating, "I've yet to meet a warm-blooded mammal of any age that enjoys things so much!"

When we finally picked him up after 14 long days for us and two weeks that zipped by at warp speed for him, we promptly learned about the inherent joy in having your bathing suit pulled off from a thunderous wipe-out while water-skiing; that he could actually eat sixteen s'mores without throwing up; that he'd lost his toothbrush sometime in the first few days and that he'd learned Australian slang terms from his counselor. He also casually advised us he had a gigantic bullfrog named Big Bertha traveling home in his duffel bag and did we think we could change the upstairs bathtub into a terrarium for her.

But seeing him interrupt his little brother in mid-sentence with a genuinely affectionate bear hug, reaffirmed to us that despite the constant barrage of head noogies at home, accompanied by the obligatory older brother insults, he did truly miss him. We also learned that our son could survive quite happily, for a time, without us. Which as a parent is both the most rewarding and frightening lesson of all.

But that is indeed partly what camp experiences are all about. Of course that and his proudly wearing the ribbons for winning the OutKast karaoke contest and coming in a close third in the highly challenging cup-the -hand-under-the-armpit-and-generate- noise competition.

I know there are still plenty of the general activity camps like my son attended, but certainly specialization has become a buzzword. With the advent of this camp differentiation, I've learned there are camps fully devoted to a specific sport, as well as camps designed solely to honing percussion instrument playing skills and there's bird watching/nature camps and dance camps as well as learn any foreign language camps.

I concluded that by attending these specialty camps, by the end of August my son could potentially be an improved soccer player who'd be able to identify the type of sparrow flying overhead, while congratulating a teammate in Swahili and having the skill to do the choreography for the team's victory dance celebration while exhibiting his melodic maracas playing talent. Maybe a bit too focused in a few areas.

I think we'll stick with the general camp experience for the next few years and then see where his interests lie. By then they may even have stratified this specialization camp thing so he could construct his own Kid Camp Nirvana. Someplace where he could negotiate a deal for "No wake up call before 9:30AM, I only play basketball, capture the flag and roller hockey, I need two hours of daily computer time with Instant Message capability, a Game Cube on the premises and a bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal before bed with lights out not a second before midnight"!

Come to think of it, that dream world sounds a lot like the times during the summer that my son is actually home from camp. Not a bad deal!

Bob's humorous essays have appeared in over 140 parenting publications as well as in the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. His most recent book, "Would Somebody Please Send Me to My Room" (Glenbridge Publishing, 2005), is available at Amazon.com, BN.com or in bookstores everywhere.

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