A Summer Camp Lesson: Good-bye, and Go Away, Thank You Very Much

Dropping a kid off for camp can test a parent's resolve. But standing back to let a child develop autonomy is one of the most important things a parent can do.
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Three years ago, when he was eleven, my son Ben set down a very specific parental code of conduct we'd be expected to follow at summer camp drop-off. We could say our goodbyes at home, but once we arrived at camp, any displays of affection, attempts to make his bed, arrange his things, or force premature familiarity with his cabin mates would be strictly prohibited. We could hang around during registration, watch while they check him for lice, help him lug his bags to his cabin, and shake hands with his counselor, but after that, our parental duties were complete. We were expected to say goodbye, and go away, thank you very much.

My husband was taken aback by Ben's request, but I was not. I totally understood his yearning for independence. I went to camp as a child, and as much as I adored my parents, I, too, looked forward to the autonomy I found during those glorious summer months away from home. I missed my parents, of course, but in their absence, I passed my swim test, dove off the high dive, ran my first 5k, spent three nights alone in a dark forest, and shared my first kiss.

The fact that Ben is eager to watch me walk away from him is a sign of strength -- both of our bond, and of his sense of self. According to psychologist Michael Thompson, childhood requires an endpoint, and it's a parent's job to raise children who can leave, children secure enough to turn away from the safety of a parents' embrace and look toward the adventures and challenges to be found beyond.

In his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, Thompson writes,

...in the final analysis, there are things we cannot do for our children, no matter how much we might want to. In order to successfully accomplish these tasks, to grow in the ways they need to grow, children have to do it on their own, and usually away from their parents, sometimes overnight, sometimes for days or weeks or even months.

He goes on to list the eight things parents cannot do for their children, no matter how desperate we are to do so:

1. We cannot make our children happy.

2. We cannot give our children high self-esteem.

3. We cannot make friendships for our children or micro-manage their friendships.

4. We cannot successfully double as our child's agent, manager, and coach.

5. We cannot create the "second family" for which our child yearns in order to facilitate his or her own growth.

6. It is increasingly apparent that we parents cannot compete with or limit our children's total immersion in the online, digital, and social media realms.

7. We cannot keep our children perfectly safe, but we can drive them crazy trying.

8. We cannot make our children independent.

Thompson's list of developmental milestones -- critical, essential milestones every child is going to have to navigate -- is terrain our children must traverse on their own, and parents who believe they can span those uncomfortable gaps with lovingly made bridges woven of organic hemp and allergen-free twine are kidding themselves. Despite all our parental worries, these gaps are not deep, dark, places of danger where there be dragons and creepy Stephen King clowns; they are places of wonder, filled with adventure, and excitement, and the promise of untold successes. If we allow our children to head out into these uncharted territories on their own, they will get there and back again, and when they return to us, ready to tell their tales of adventure, they will be much more competent and capable human beings.

So when I drove my son to camp today, we did not have to review his rules. He knew I would remember and honor them. We parked, he was checked for lice, I met his counselor, and while the other parents moved about the cabin, making their children's beds and suggesting where to store their flashlights and extra sunscreen, I quickly took my leave with a wave and a good-bye.

On the way back to the car, my younger son slipped his hand into mine, something he hardly ever does anymore.

"I think I'd like to come to camp next year," he said.

"Really?" I said, picturing him running around among these hulking adolescents.

"Yep," he nodded. "I think I'll be big enough next year."

And with that, he let go of my hand and ran ahead to gather up a pile of pine needles he'd spotted just off the path. As I watched him attempt to stuff two handfuls of the needles into his pockets, I realized that next year, he'd be almost as old as his brother was the first year he went to camp. So just maybe, if I do my job right, he will be big enough next year. Big enough to want me to say goodbye, and go away, thank you very much.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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