3 Nights, 4 Days: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving Camp

by Rachel Nemhauser

smiling mother and son

In a few days, Nate will be going away for three nights of overnight camp with his sixth grade class. He’ll be sleeping in a cabin with his classmates, learning in an outdoor setting, playing lawn games to burn off energy, and making memories with his friends. He probably won’t take a shower, and I’m guessing even teeth brushing might fall to the wayside. I don’t imagine he’ll eat his five servings of vegetables each day, and he probably won’t get his full 8-10 hours of sleep either. This is his first time ever going away without his parents, and emotions are running high.

When I heard last spring that Nate would be attending camp for a few nights early in 6th grade, I admit I got excited. Four days and three nights without Nate? Imagine the possibilities!

Instead of starting each day dragging him out of bed, forcing him through a morning routine and having him on a bus by 7:10, I can slowly linger over a hot cup of coffee and get totally caught up on Facebook before leaving for the day?

Rather than bolting out of work no later than 2 pm in order to pick him up on time after school, I can sit at my desk until I cross the very last item off my to-do list?

Instead of a 4 foot tall, red-headed bundle of pandemonium prowling for trouble and freezing bags of muddy water he collected from driveway puddles, I’ll have a quiet, tidy living room and the option to watch something non-animated on TV? Yeah, I was looking forward to this.

Nate, however, has been (and continues to be), unsure about camp.  We’ve been working closely with his school the past few weeks to help get him comfortable with what’s coming, but he’s made it clear that he’d rather have no part in it. He’s a creature of habit and prone to homesickness—leaving his room and bed and toys and pets is hard for him—so four days away from home won’t be easy.

We’re committed to sending him to camp even if he’s uncomfortable with the idea. Like all his fellow sixth graders, he needs to practice travel, self-care, and (most importantly) independence. He needs to be in charge of his own teeth, food intake and basic hygiene, and to try out navigating the world without mom and dad guiding his choices.

Perhaps, unlike his typical peers, Nate also needs to begin to understand the world is bigger than our house and our neighborhood, and that he is one day expected to be a part of it. Travel and adventure and outdoor learning are not privileges available exclusively for typically developing people. Independence and self-determination, and deciding to skip brushing your teeth once in a while, are not luxuries saved only for the verbal. Living in your own apartment, clocking into work each day, and spending your free time however you choose is a life any person can live. He has all those great things ahead of him, even if he wants nothing to do with them, and it’s my responsibility to make sure he understands that.

Perhaps, unlike his typical peers, Nate also needs to begin to understand the world is bigger than our house and our neighborhood, and that he is one day expected to be a part of it.

As we’re getting closer and closer to departure day, I’m finding the excitement for my four day vacation is fading. Maybe I’m taking my cues from Nate, and his worries are rubbing off on me. Maybe his fear and reluctance are contagious. I think it’s more than that though.  I think it’s that I love this kid like crazy, and I’m just plain going to miss him.

mother and son outside, sitting in a chair togetherFor those three nights and four days, I’m going to miss his morning snuggles, even though they almost always bring sloshed coffee on my PJs.

I’m going to miss his daily insistence, as he climbs off the bus with a smile on his face, that he had another “bad day” at school.

I’m going to miss his joy, his irritability, and even the messy chaos he creates all evening long.

The slow mornings and peaceful afternoons will only be reminders that someone’s missing, and I know I’ll be counting down the days until he returns.

Guiding Nate through childhood and nudging him ever so gently towards adulthood is full of surprises, obstacles, joys, and hurdles. It’s not always easy, and it’s rarely boring. Sometimes, it’s exhausting. I fantasize about a day when I’m not so busy mopping up spilled milk, cutting chicken into bite-sized pieces, or wrestling deodorant onto a stubborn pre-teen. Some days feel a hundred hours long, and some routines feel so well-worn that I’m not sure I can fumble my way through them even one more time.

A few weeks ago, I was counting down the days until camp. Now, with departure day coming quickly, and Nate looking less like a little boy every day, I’m realizing that watching him go, even just for a few days, might be the hardest part of all.


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