The mom and dad were staggering up the street holding their daughter’s camp gear between them – a duffel bag seemingly stuffed with Pavarotti.
“This is the small bag,” the mom said through a gritted smile. They made their way through a throng of parents, all bidding goodbye to children off to sleepaway camp. Some of them were homesick already.
The parents, I mean. The new term for this is “childsickness.”
It’s not that parents never moped for their mosquito-bound moppets before. But parents today – some of them, anyway – have become so accustomed to constant contact with their children (thank you, Verizon) that a summer hiatus feels less like a break and more like a breakdown.
“I cry for the next three weeks,” a father named Syd said as he prepared to put his daughter Jackie on the bus.
“He doesn’t,” the daughter, 11, reassured me.
“You don’t know!” the dad said. “I walk into your empty room. I’m lonely all summer.”
To help papa cope with her absence, Jackie says: “I write a lot, but daddy wants me to write more. I tell him everything I do – kind of. Just what I did that was fun. I don’t want to worry him.”
Dad looks as if he could use a hug – or a couple of electroshocks. But maybe all he really needs is some pop psychology, so here goes: “If you aren’t truly ready, your child will know,” family therapist Bob Ditter writes in a handout the American Camp Association gives to parents. “And they won’t be able to go without being worried about you.”
So we have come to the point where children have to soothe their parents’ separation anxiety. Next thing you know, they’re going to have to send care packages.
Or maybe not, because the camps already are taking care of that. More and more have started posting the addictive parental treat of daily online camper snapshots.
“We promised our daughter $1 for every time we see her picture on the Web site,” the parent of an 11-year-old camper, Texan Caryn Kboudi, said. This way, her daughter knows to look for the camera and make sure she gets her picture taken a lot. Meanwhile, mom can check the Web site 10 times a day – literally – to look for her.
Parents want written updates, too. “We’re forced to tell parents everything the kids have done,” said June Ingraham, spokeswoman for camp Sail Caribbean. “Like, ‘They sailed from point A to point B; they went on land; they took a hike; they got ice cream at a local shop and stir-fry for dinner.’ We put everything in there so that parents can live vicariously.”
And when that’s not enough, there’s direct contact. Bowing to parental pressure, this is the first summer the 29-year-old Sail Caribbean is allowing its campers to hang on to their cell phones.
That’s too bad because calling home often has the opposite effect anyone intended. Think of homesickness as a scrape. Eventually, it heals. But not if you keep peeling off the scab with a call to the people who love and miss you the most.
What makes camp so special – so intense – is that it is the one place in childhood where the people who love you the most aren’t. It’s where a child finally can grow up. My husband still marvels that in camp, as a sixthgrader, he could be totally girl crazy. Back home, it was another two years of neuterdom. Camp gave him liberation. Independence. And (I think) a girlfriend.
Over at camp drop-off, the parents with the huge duffel bag walked by again – this time with a sack so big it looked as if they were smuggling a Smart car. “It’s a sort of bureau,” the mom explained. “With drawers.”
Parents always will go overboard for their children. It’s called love. But if you want to give your kids the biggest gift of all, try this: For a few weeks this summer, leave them alone.
Lenore Skenazy is a columnist at The New York Sun and Advertising Age.
©2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.