A Road Well Traveled

By Gregory Keer

It was my eldest son’s first winter break since he started college, and I was so happy to have him home that I had all kinds of plans. We’d watch movies, take in a concert, hit up a couple of his favorite food joints, and just sit around so I could stare at my first born.

Benjamin had other plans.

“How many days are you planning for this road trip?” I asked.

“Not that long, maybe seven,” Benjamin replied.

“Seven days? That’s a whole week,” I said, deflated.

Benjamin put a consoling hand on my shoulder, our father-son roles reversed.

“It’ll be OK, Dad. I’ll have plenty of time to hang out with you when I get back.”

Fighting my selfish inclinations, I recovered my concerned parent persona.

“Who’s car are you taking?”

“Jamie’s. Don’t worry, Dad, it’s the one with the most safety features.”

“And you’re driving in shifts?”

“Of course. All four of us will take a turn driving.”

“Four dudes in a car with luggage? That’s going to be a close fit.”

“It’ll be fine.”

I stopped at this. After all, my son was old enough for a road trip, despite my worries. Best of all, he was going with some of his closest buddies to visit another pal in the next state. Over the course of 10 years, these kids became friends at overnight camp, where they lived, played, ate, got in trouble, and eventually worked as counselors together each summer.

Along with those kids came great parents, some of whom voiced the same concerns when the families met for dinner the night before the boys’ journey.

“How many of you are packing into the car?” Jamie’s mom inquired.

“Now it’s five,” Jamie said.

“Comfy,” Joe’s dad quipped.

“That’ll smell good,” Jamie’s dad added.

““You have to be careful about not distracting each other,” Joe’s mom said.

“We’ll be fine, I promise,” Joe replied.

“You’re all staying at Mitchell’s house?” Jamie’s mom continued. “Does his mother know that?”

“She definitely knows,” my son confirmed.

“Well, we’ve certainly all had Mitchell stay with us over the years,” Wendy offered. “Last summer, he sent just his laundry with Benjamin on a staff day off.”

We all laughed at this, one of many examples of how the boys have managed to extend their relationships to each other’s families. Skeptical as we were that night, we made a few more micromanaging suggestions about eating, driving, and being safe, then collectively gave them our blessing for their adventure.

In this month of February, as my wife and I make the final decision on sending our younger two boys to overnight camp, we are bolstered by the benefits we’ve seen Benjamin receive from his summer experiences. His months away with the guys he road-tripped with, as well as several other significant friends, gave him shared experiences that go well beyond what he had during school terms. Overnight camp allowed these boys to see each other at their best and worst, in the early morning and middle of the night. They formed bonds that have made them feel like family.

Mind you, tuition for overnight camp has been expensive, often to the point where we’ve struggled to finance the costs. Yet, of all the things we have spent money on, camp has brought golden value not only to Benjamin, but also to our other boys. They’ve learned independence, tried activities that expanded their self-confidence, and managed to survive on food they sometimes didn’t like.

Most of all, though, they have been educated in the complexity of socialization. Without parent hovering, but under the care of trained counselors and professional supervisors, they’ve lived and played with all kinds of people. They’ve had to get along with kids they didn’t like and some that didn’t like them. Because of round-the-clock time with each other, sometimes the dislikes turned into likes. Our boys have had to learn about emotions in themselves and others, even early romance, that could not be explored in a typical school day. They’ve met people from other parts of the country and from other cultures, getting to know details about them that could only come from their month of living together.

While it’s not a guarantee that my younger boys will maintain the kind of friendships my eldest has with his road-trip buddies, it is apparent that camp is helping them gain the skills to find deep relationships.

Regarding that road trip, Benjamin and his band of merry men managed to come home in one piece. They made some mistakes, but also learned from an experience no parent can ever really teach. As we did with overnight camp, we had followed the belief that the best thing a parent can do is launch our kids, then let them learn on their own. Of course, it helps when they have good friends to go along for the ride.

 

© 2017 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Boys to Men, Camp, Columns by Family Man, Friendship, Teens | 1 Comment

Overnight Camp Sensations

By Gregory Keer

CampMudWhen it came to overnight camp, I was a dismal failure. Everyone else was having a good time, but all I ever seemed to do was embarrass myself by dropping food trays to thunderous applause, lying awake nights watching spiders make plans to eat me alive, and pining for girls who would never give me the time of day let alone make lanyards with me. I only went for a week each time, but those seven days seemed like months of torture.

So, when my wife told me we were sending our kids for a month when they got old enough, bitter memories flooded in.

“What if a mean boy steals all the cookies from their care packages?” I asked.

“That’s the first thing you worry about when it comes to sleep away camp?” my wife replied.

“Those cookies were my bridge to home,” I argued. “That Neanderthal didn’t even like oatmeal raisin!”

“Did you ever stand up to that bully?” she inquired.

“Actually…when he saw I was a decent basketball player, he asked to join my team later that week,” I answered, realizing the point my wife was about to make. “We had a few meals together, too.”

“And would that kind of bonding have happened without overnight camp?” she said.

Maybe I would have become friends with the cookie bully in another situation, but Wendy was right. Overnight camp provided opportunities to live and play with other kids, without much adult intervention, so that growth could happen in ways that just didn’t occur during regular year activities. Certainly not as quickly.

So, seven years go, my oldest son started going away to overnight camp. First it was for two weeks, then for a month. Jacob, my middle child, followed suit. Both of them usually came home caked in grime and resoundingly happy from their time away. They even returned with better table-clearing skills.

This summer, Benjamin (now 15) completed his final session as a camper while Jacob (11) reached the mid-point of his camp career and Ari (8½) accomplished his first two weeks away from us. All three of them had amazingly rich, albeit different, experiences.

In his swan song, Benjamin played the part of the senior camper who savored all the “last chances” to bond with buddies from all over the country, some of whom he only saw at camp. He went on the overnight-within-overnight camp – a week of sleeping under the stars and roughing it before returning to base like warriors from battle. Upon that return, Benjamin and his cohort covered themselves in wet dirt and gave “mud hugs” to the younger campers and some of the counselors. The biggest, muddiest embrace was for his brother.

Aside from unintended mud baths, Jacob availed himself to both sports and arts, particularly ceramics and the camp play. He’s the more extroverted of our two older kids and he grabbed every chance he could to befriend all kinds of campers, at varying age levels. We used to worry about our middle child, socially speaking, and coached him relentlessly on how to talk and play with people. So we really credit his overnight camp experience for allowing him the space to be himself, without us analyzing every move, and the results have been wonderfully positive.

For our youngest, we fretted about sending Ari at such a young age, but he was rarin’ to go, especially with this opportunity to be there with both of his big brothers.  Having learned a lot from the tales his siblings told, Ari was so comfortable at camp, he helped the other kids in his bunk make their beds and not feel so homesick. He even made sure to smile for pictures so his anxious parents could see proof on the camp web site that our boy wasn’t huddled somewhere in a corner, cursing our names.

With all three kids away from home, Wendy and I had nice days to be together, without having to make lunches, arranging for babysitters, or hounding our sons to do chores. We also spent a fair amount of time missing them because, frankly, we’ve come to feel fulfilled amidst the fruitful chaos of parenting.

What are most significant, though, are the long-term gains we all receive from overnight camp. For us, it’s the satisfaction that we have afforded our kids opportunities to practice independence in a safe environment, to take “technology vacations” that free them for more interactions with live people and nature, and to collect memories of great times and friendships. For them, it’s the chance to enjoy all of those benefits, without ever having to think that deeply about it. This, I know, is a whole lot more delicious than oatmeal raisin cookies.

Posted in Adolescence, Camp, Columns by Family Man | 1 Comment

What Dads Need to Know: The Refreshing Side of Overnight Camp

By Hollee Actman Becker

OK.

So it’s the last week of June.

Otherwise known as the time of year when parents across the country drive to various makeshift bus stops, hug their kids goodbye while hiding behind dark glasses, release them to make the climb up onto the air conditioned chartered buses that ironically advertise free wi-fi, then wave maniacally at their shadows — barely visible behind blackened windows — yelling “goodbye!” and “I love you!” and “you better freaking write!” until the very last bus has inched out onto the highway and disappeared from sight.

Only then will they be free to swipe away the stray tears, sigh at the anti-climactic-ness of it all, and then celebrate their long-awaited Summer! Of! Freedom! by running home to glue themselves to their computer screens and hit the refresh button every two seconds while guzzling glass after glass of wine.

If you have to ask why these parents are engaging in this type of behavior then you’ve clearly never sent your kid off to sleep-away camp for seven weeks.

And if your jaw just dropped at the phrase “seven weeks,” then you are clearly not from the Northeast.

Because the reason they — OK, let’s be honest here… we — attach ourselves to our iPads and our laptops and any other freaking device that will let us log onto Bunk1 or CampMinder or whatever website our camp happens to be using this summer is because we are all desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of our happy little campers — emphasis on the word happy — when each of our camps starts posting THE PICTURES.

And if there was ever a phrase worthy of utilizing the All Caps button it’s that one.

Trust me.

Because only when we see that first grainy image of our child smiling as they jump into the lake… or swing a bat… or kick a ball.. .or get a piggyback ride from some random nineteen-year-old who they may or may not have just met two minutes ago…Only then do we allow ourselves to breathe a collective sigh of relief, fork over the $1.69 to download the high-res image, and then finally just chill the eff out and relax.

At least for five seconds until we hit the refresh button again.

Anybody else here see the irony of confiscating your kids’ electronics and sending them off into a wi-fi free zone, only to spend the summer obsessed with electronics yourself?

I mean.

Do you know how many mornings last summer I woke up to find an empty wine glass on my night table and an iPad on my pillow?

All of them.

But here’s the thing.

These are our children we are talking about here. And these images we see on our computer screens are our only lifeline to them.

So — and stop me if any of this sounds familiar — we spend our entire summer waiting to see THE PICTURES.

Talking about THE PICTURES. And — full disclosure — meticulously over-analyzing every single little detail about the freaking pictures.

Wait. Why isn’t my kid smiling? Is that a smile? And why is he standing all the way over there on the end? Why isn’t he in the middle like that kid there with all the freckles? Who is that kid with all the freckles anyway? I bet he’s mean. He looks mean. How come everyone in the bunk is holding hands and my daughter is holding a freaking water bottle? Does she not have any friends? Who’s bathing suit is she wearing? She looks skinny. Is she eating? She better be eating! And is that a sunburn?

Um.

Guilty as charged.

Last summer I made myself crazy studying the pictures.

Seriously freaking crazy.

I know.

You expected more from me.

Like, way more.

Sorry to disappoint.

I know it sounds insane.

Like, really insane.

And it so is.

But while I’m far from a helicopter parent in my everyday life, it’s really freaking hard not become just a little certifiable when you’re stuck at home sending one-way emails, and the only clue you have to your child’s well-being is an image that’s left you feeling at best unsettled and at worst suicidal and why didn’t you just sneak that damn cell phone into you kid’s laundry bag when you had the chance?

Here’s the thing, though.

I learned the hard way that the pictures don’t always tell the whole story. And sometimes the story you think you are watching unfold right before your very eyes all summer is not actually the real story at all.

The girl you thought looked mean turns out to be the bunk sweetheart. The boy with the hugest grin in every picture cried for an hour every night. The counselor who was always standing off to the side with a grimace turns out to be your kid’s favorite.

You get the idea.

But the most important thing to remember — and, catch 22, the hardest thing to remember — is that your kid can be having the craziest, most amazeballs summer at camp, YOLO-ing it up every minute, even if there isn’t a shred of photographic proof.

You don’t believe me, do you?

Think back to your wedding video for a second.

Who are the people the videographer ambushed and shoved his microphone in front of? Are they your awesome BFFs who were busy shredding up the dance floor? Or are they the guests who were just sitting at the tables, hanging out on the periphery, watching the action from afar, and therefore the easiest to approach?

My guess is, it’s the latter.

And my point — because I know you must be wondering if I actually have one— is this: Just because the videographer didn’t capture your closest friends on camera wishing you their slurred-yet-heartfelt congratulations, it doesn’t mean they weren’t there having the time of their lives.

And now it’s my turn to tell you a story.

Are you ready?

Here we go.

One day last summer about 50 pics went up on the camp website of my daughter’s bunk at the waterfront.

She was not in a single one of them.

Not ONE.

So I start immediately freaking out.

Because duh.

Judge away but you know you’d do it too.

Here are all these girls smiling and laughing and jumping in the air holding hands.

And where the fuck is my kid?

So then a week later we’re up at camp for Visiting Day.

Which is a story in and of itself that you should remind me to tell you later.

So we’re at Visiting Day.

And we go on a family boat ride.

And my daughter starts to tell us a story.

About how there was this one day when her bunk went to the waterfront with another bunk in her division.

And how it was sooo cool because she got to go out in a canoe with two of the girls from the other bunk.

And omigod do you know what happened when they went out in that canoe?

They got stuck in the mud.

Like stuck stuck.

And someone from the waterfront had to come rescue them!

And it was awesome!

Like, soooo totally hilarious that the girls literally peed in their bathing suits.

I swear I’m not making this up.

So after visiting day I swallowed about a billion milligrams of Valium and then went home and pulled up that set of waterfront pics on the camp website again.

But this time I zoomed in on them on my iPad (great trick, btw… remember it).

And there she was — my kid, my heart, my home — way off in the background.

In a canoe.

Stuck in the mud.

With two other girls.

Laughing her freaking ass off.

Moral of the story?

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

Step away from the freaking computer.

Just step. The hell. Away.

At least until they upload the next batch of pictures.

Refresh.

Refresh.

Refresh.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer and blogger who explores parenting and pop culture on her blog suburBABBLE.com. Her writing has also been featured in publications like Self, Cosmo, The New York Post, Ocean Drive, Lucky, TheKnot and Philadelphia magazine. She lives in the Philly suburbs with her husband, two kids and their dog, Mickey Jagger. They also have a white picket fence. OK, that’s a lie. Go find her on Twitter here: @holleewoodworld.

Posted in Camp, Featured Moms & Dads, Humor, What Dads Need to Know | Leave a comment

Camp Togetherness

By Gregory Keer

At the beginning of kindergarten, Benjamin decorated a giant folder for his weekly schoolwork. When he brought it home, we deciphered a stick figure on a mountaintop, wearing what looked like a deployed parachute. Was it a scene from a Spy Kids flick or a G.I. Joe I-Can-Read book?

“It’s a picture of Mommy jumping off the cliff at family camp,” Benjamin proudly explained.

Yes, Wendy and I burst out laughing. Yes, we explained that, when Mommy went paragliding (hang-gliding with a parachute), she was clipped to an instructor with lots of safety equipment. And, yes, we can’t wait to return to family camp.

Two years ago, we attended our first session at a mountain facility run by the university my wife and I attended. Going in, I was skeptical. I am not a camper. Even the word “rustic” makes my eyes itch and my dreams fill with marauding bears.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The accommodations were civilized mini-condos (though without air conditioning, phones, or TVs) and the meals were sophisticated. I also found the grounds breathtaking, the staff amazing (made up largely of college students), and the activities diverse enough to rival a luxury cruise.

Best of all was the socializing. Benjamin spent much of his day with his Teddy Bear group, creating art, swimming, and hiking with counselors who seemed like in-person versions of Disney’s Out of the Box show. Wendy and I had our challenges with one-year-old Jacob — who was either napping or crawling toward danger — but enjoyed meals and sports with grown-ups happy to leave busy schedules at home.

The only element missing was something most of the other people enjoyed — familiarity. The beauty of this idyllic camp is that families return, year after year, to have fun and grow together, creating memories around the consistent surroundings.

So, in the year of Mommy’s Great Role-Model Stunt, we returned to build a tradition. This time, we were joined by my childhood buddy, Eric, his wife Nancy, and their three kids, who loved the extra time with my sons.

Benjamin had the grandest experience of our bunch, loving every minute of his days in the Cubs group. He soaked up the sun and information ranging from Native American culture to tie-dye shirts. Often, he was the loudest singer, leading his friends in spontaneous camp medleys at the pool, the veins popping from his neck as he shouted, “We Are the Cubbies, the Mighty, Mighty Cubbies!” He learned a few questionable tricks, too, such as shooting slingshots at lizards and filching cubes from the ice machine to dump down people’s shirts.

Then there’s the subject of independence. Because the camp is secluded and full of families, the place feels as safe as a 1950s country farm. So, many of the kids scoot about the grounds without supervision.

Encouraged by his 6-year-old friends, Benjamin (then 5), decided to walk himself to his group about midway through the week. At mealtimes, he started  grabbing his own meals from the buffet and sitting with his friends’ families.

While we had often wished for moments of reprieve from parental responsibility, we were short of breath at the thought that our little boy didn’t need us as escorts, let alone companions. We wanted our baby back, though we were proud that his confidence was rising.

For his part, Jacob became the camp charmer. He’d run around this expansive lawn, where all the kids played, asking, “What’s your name?” Everywhere else Jacob went, his grinning, dirt-smudged face became famous. So, when he’d run off, and we’d panic, “Where’d he go now?” we had a team of friendly detectives that never failed us.

Wendy and I had a few opportunities for grown-up adventures, like flying on a zip line, playing inner-tube water polo, and jumping off that cliff. Still, the moments of true joy were the ones we all spent together. We sat on blankets under a starry sky, watching a movie on the lawn. We snuggled with the kids for a boat ride around the lake. And we competed in egg tossing and watermelon eating contests at the week’s finale.

We will return to family camp this summer. Maybe we’ll do this for the next 20 years, like some of the families we’ve met up there. I think much of the draw for the adults is the chance to finally be that proverbial fly on the wall. Occasionally, I wish I could spy on my kids at their classrooms or playdates, to see them unfettered by my influence. With family camp, I get to see my kids at all hours of the day — with no deadlines to distract me or homework for them to do — to witness how they socialize, laugh, run, and sing.

While I still find it bittersweet to watch my sons get more independent, I’m thankful for the gift that one week a year gives to me, of seeing them grow. One day, my sons will be old enough to decide about jumping from cliffs. With the benefit of years watching them mature, I think I’ll be ready to trust they can fly on their own.

Posted in Camp, Child Development | Leave a comment