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White Knuckle Parenting: Enduring Sleep-away Camp

My son spent last week at sleep-away camp for the first time. He did great. I panicked extensively.

A few weeks ago, my oldest son, Sam, came home excited to tell me that he had been chosen to be on the safety patrol next year when he is fifth grade. What's more, he told me, there is a sleep-away safety patrol camp that he could go to and he wanted me to sign him up.

As an elementary schooler who had worn the fluorescent belt myself, I was very proud of my responsible kid. Then I heard the part about him wanting to go away for a week and I commenced to panicking.

How could my baby possibly get by for five days and four nights without me? Wouldn't he starve if they didn't feed him macaroni and cheese for every meal? What if he got lonely? Who would apply his sunscreen? What if the counselors were mean to him? What if he didn't find a friend? What if that was the week the zombie apocalypse finally took place and I had to go rescue him?

Then I realized that he was ten years old, the camp is run by police officers, and I have to relinquish my control freak tendencies sometime. Also, zombies aren't real.

I tried to downplay my neuroses when I talked to Sam about it. I made sure he understood that he wouldn't see or hear from us for five days and four nights. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to go even though he didn't know anyone else who was going. I asked him if it was okay that he would have to follow someone else's directions for a whole week.

It turns out that Sam is much braver than I am. He said he was cool with all of the above, so we bought him a new sleeping bag that didn't have big cartoon trucks on it, wrote some letters to be delivered while he was there, and sent him on his way. I mean, I suppose if he wants to go to sleep-away camp, it's not a bad idea to send him to the one that is populated by all the other most responsible rising fifth graders in the county, right?

It was weird when he was gone. I knew that the camp wouldn't call me unless things went terribly, terribly wrong, so I settled in with my two younger kids and we waited for him to come home. I envisioned an easy week with only two kids to boss around instead of three. The week wasn't what I expected, however.

It turns out that Sam is a really big help when it comes to parenting those younger two. He's like a third parent. I always say that he can make my younger kids do things that I can't, but I had forgotten about that—right up until my still-at-home kids started yelling at each other and demanding attention from me because their fearless leader was away.

Happily, the camp never called, which was fortunate because I had no idea where the camp was located. I hadn't bothered looking it up on a map because it was really irrelevant to my existence. Sam was away. Where he was did not make all that much of a difference.

By the time Friday rolled around, I was so excited to pick up Sam I almost couldn't stand it. He was very blasé about the whole thing. He wore a total poker face as he tolerated my ecstatic hug, got in the car, and picked up the book he'd been reading when we dropped him off on Monday.

I swear, getting information out of Sam about camp was like pulling teeth, or something even harder—like pulling a mule. It turns out that he had a really good time. There were some things he didn't love, but he coped with them. There were some things he really loved, which he finally told me about. And there were some things I really loved, chief among them the knowledge that my kiddo is a brave, self-reliant, resilient kid.

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

Elaine June 27, 2012 at 01:04 PM
I always love this column! And GAH! Sleepaway camp. Thankfully that's at least a few years away for me because the thought of it blows my mind away. Yay you for making it through! And yay Sam for being so freakin' brave!
Jean Winegardner June 28, 2012 at 01:05 AM
Thanks, Elaine! And I was so impressed by Sam! He's a rock star!

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