Annie Keeling: The blessings and burdens of sleep-away camp |

Annie Keeling: The blessings and burdens of sleep-away camp

Annie Keeling
Parenting Points

School is out and, for lots of folks, summer camp is in. Many families start with a day camp experience and work their way up to a sleep-away camp.

There is something that changes when the child goes away for a week or two at a time. It starts with the drop-off …

Some parents are old hands at that scene where reticent kids accept overzealous hugs and repeatedly endure the “put on your sunscreen” reminders.

After that last hug, that last glance, some of these parents almost run to their cars with glee, days of freedom stretching ahead where every decision they make is their own.

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Others, often first-timers, weep in their cars as they watch the camp bus taillights disappear or observe the gaggle of kids laden with backpacks trundle behind cheery counselors as they head off to their cabins.

I remember my son’s first sleep-away camp, a leadership development program that was an offshoot of the Boy Scouts located in Monterey. That sounded wonderful.

The first thing I didn’t know was that it was actually in the arid area of Arroyo Seco southeast of Monterey at a very primitive site that would run out of clean drinking water, had no water feature, and very dirty, dry conditions. An 11-year old boy might not mind so much. I reminisced, though, of the horseback riding, canoeing, archery, lanyard-making camp on the shores of a lake that I attended as a child and wondered if we had made a mistake.

Drop-off consisted of a folding table where I signed in my son and then was expected to leave. What, not see the camp? Not circle up with the campers to sing a heartfelt goodbye? I felt somehow sad and insignificant. It all happened so fast that I didn’t even get to use the sunscreen line.

The boy I met a week later at pick-up was a shade darker from dirt and sun, dehydrated, and covered in an itchy skin rash. Yet the songs and stories at the graduation circle (parents were invited to that!) were so uplifting. And then his name was called to receive the Outstanding Camper award.

I will never know all that happened throughout the week or what behaviors he consistently showed to get that award, and that’s how it should be.

He had been making his own memories through school, playdates, and day camps, but somehow that week away gave me a new appreciation for the separate life he would grow to have.

Ouch, and yeah!

Those reactions exist together inside of me. Such huge gratefulness that I get to watch this person grow and change lives alongside the tightness in my chest that this parenting thing, at least in this way, will all be over soon.


We live in a culture of attached parenting. I am more involved in my son’s life than my parents were in mine. Connection has a high value. It’s this way for most of my friends.

Studies show that more connection helps to create healthy emotional development. Some parents crave a deeper connection that might have been missing in their upbringing.

And still, some of that closeness comes from a direct need to be more involved. Safety awareness, stranger danger, speed and availability of negative news, and social media in general — all create an underlying track of fear for modern parents.

So, we hover, even helicopter, doing what seems right and necessary in order to be a “good” parent. Our kids might be safer and their quality of comfort greater, yet psychologically their independence is bound to suffer with all that intervention.

That is the beauty of sleep-away camp. By its nature, there is no hovering. There isn’t a small enough camper ratio to counselor for anyone to hover. Kids make decisions that are truly their own. They forget things and learn things and there is no one quizzing them at the end of the day. Their thoughts are their own as well.

Idealizing Summer

There is a cultural fantasy of lazy summer days on the porch swing, sipping lemonade with the kids, playing board games in the heat, and taking flashlight walks after a late barbecued dinner when the weather cools down.

But sprinkler fun and ice pops often lead quickly to messes. Downtime usually leads to whining and media requests to stave off the boredom, which can also lead to sibling fights.

Sleep-away camp, when your child is ready, can punctuate the summer in a way that alleviates the inevitable doldrums.

Parent Guilt

Some parents carry their own baggage into the sleep-away camp experience.

Some wonder if they are spending enough time with their kids and how does sending them away help with that connection? Others feel most connected when they are observing as much of the soccer games, play dates, swim time, park days, field trips as possible.

The words themselves are a bit traumatic. Sleep. Away.

How can I watch my child’s peaceful face in slumber or chuckle at his limbs thrown all akimbo in his bed if he is away? Who sprays Bactine on his skinned knee? Who cheers him on in the three-legged race?

Added to that feeling of missing out is often parental worry — will he eat too much sugar, will she make friends? — and legitimate concerns (albeit a bit overblown) — will he break his arm, will she be safe in the canoe? Sometimes these keep us up at night.

Here are my words to you if your little one is off at camp:

Enjoy yourself!

That sleep-away camp? It’s as much for you as it is for the child.

Sure, catch up on laundry and vacuum all those crumbs under the couch cushions. But also, sleep in late, go out for a glass of wine in the middle of the day with your bestie, plant some flowers, take that Buckeye Loop bike ride, stain the deck, binge watch Game of Thrones (I know you’re behind), or read one of the books on your nightstand.

Or, hey, do nothing!

There is always the reunion to appreciate. Your kids will miss you. That first hug says it all.

There’s nothing quite like that tight wrap of the arms of a child who has tasted independence — handled the mosquito bites without the Itch Stop, was cold in his sleeping bag, or ate a food she didn’t like.

These kids lived into the world all on their own. That is no small victory.

And there you are, in the dusty parking lot. Your children run to you. In that moment, they want nothing more than the safe and loving hug of family to welcome them home.

Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides local and distance parent coaching. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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