My six-year-old daughter started legit summer camp this year, and she freaking loves it. What’s not to love about a place where go-karts, Slip-n-Slide, a rock-climbing wall and Capture-the-Rubber-Chicken games delight on the daily? It’s far from a ringer for my own friendship pin and soggy sneakers camp days of yore, but I’m down with this souped-up millennial reincarnation. So down I may or may not have tried masking my camp envy with separation anxiety the first few days. I mean, I love her to the ol’ moon and back, yes, give me another hug, honey, but omg, look over there! You guys! THE RUBBER CHICKEN!
It all got me thinking of how badass summer camp is for a kid. I learned a heckuva lot of life lessons, and some sticky enough you even know it in your six to 11 year old mind, like, “Hey! I think this is one of those life lessons!” They’re the kind of A-has! that keep you cozy through middle school mayhem, college shenanigans and those wayward twenties. The best ones? They sit tight in your back pocket to be pulled out for today’s parenting. Such as…
You Better Kumbaya Up With These Chicks
Summer camp is often full of a few faces you may know from school and a lot of new ones making it the ultimate buffet of personalities for a still-in-her-shell kind of kid, a little timid to break free. What got me was the Broadway-bound “Annie” wannabe. The girl unafraid to take the lead over to the boy’s side of camp “just to see” and hold my shaky hand on the way. And of course, the private school kid whose mom packed her Thermos lunch cooler with farm-to-table though she always begged me for my Tastykakes. Lest I not forget the “famous” kids like the Bacon Brothers’ younger cousins who talked so Hollywood despite their rural PA upbringing. My eyes were so wide, but my voice not quite there yet. A lack of courage was just an appetizer for the hungry rebel-rousers ready to pull kids like me along and take summer by storm. Someone inevitably grabs a hand, incites laughter, and gets everyone comfortable. You figure out you all have the same mission: No more pencils, no more books, we’re going to have some fun, goddamn it. Then you find yourself standing there, singing a solo in front of the camp six weeks later. Go ‘head with your camp badness.
I actually still feel this initially shy camper in me at times as a parent. Imagine the first week of Kindergarten at a new school or any social scenario around my kids’ teams or activities. There’s the Overachieving Pinterest Mom, Hippy Mama Whose Kids Radiate Sunshine and Moonbeams, the Corporate Ingénue who makes balance her bitch. The (stereotypical) list goes on if I let it. That feeling of “everyone has their shit together but me” persists, but only if I let it. I’ve started to figure out how to silence that timid girl with a S’more though. Labels are dumb, and, hello, we all want the same damn thing: Happy fam? Yes, ma’am! I can wallow in silence at how I may never fit in, or I can rally and be a part of the team. Whether we’re afraid to sing in front of the whole camp or take the reins of a classroom party, Broadway-bound Betty or Pinterest Paula are really just Betty and Paula and we have each other’s backs because we care about our kids. Nobody gets left up the creek without a paddle--at camp or the P.T.A. Nobody.
Woman Up When You Make Bad Choices
I seriously don’t remember much about Kristy Silver* other than in high school she got a boob reduction which in the early 90s was a BIG deal. Oh, and way back in the 1st and 2nd grade girls cabin, I purposely tossed her wood-carved boat—meant for the annual boat races—over a bridge into the creek and watched it float away. I mean, WTF, Jenn. I was not this kind of asshole. I repeat: I was not this kind of kid! I have no idea what would possess me with such mean. Plus, she was a new friend! I had ventured outside of my few tried and true homies, and then I go and bust the girl’s ark? Was I afraid her boat would beat my own nautical creation, and I just wasn’t having it? No clue. I do know that I immediately had to run back (uh, race her back) to give my side of the story to our counselor. Again, I got nothing, other than a grandiose apology and tail inserted between my legs. I wobbled to pick-up at 3pm to cop my delinquency to my mom. It was a horrible feeling to be such a dick. The next day I gave my boat to Kelly to compete while I sat on the sidelines. It still didn’t feel good, but I knew somewhere deeply it was better for the both of us. Not right, but better. Her hurt feelings sunk in and stayed with me forever. I take that sentence with respect. R.I.P. to the S.S. Silver.
As a mom, I screw up a lot. Like a crap ton of times. I watch my kids do the same, and each and every time I tell them to apologize to innocent victims of their crimes. Obviously actions are louder than words, but words set the behavior in motion. When did it become so hard to give someone an apologetic wave after cutting them off in traffic, atoning those shouts at the kids that were a wee bit louder than necessary, or plain old letting ego overtake genuine remorse? I’m not advocating guilt dwelling. Just a legitimate I-WILL-OWN-MY-ASSNESS-AND-APOLOGIZE-WHEN-REQUIRED. The first step toward amends is some admittance. Forget this whole #sorrynotsorry movement. I can be better than that, and my kids will be too. Cheers to hope!
Some of the most epic internal groan-inducing moments of childhood were brought to me courtesy of summer camp. Exhibit A: Every summer there would be a swim show that the whole camp would participate in and watch. Most of the grades just showed off a made up, silly skit involving the water as prop or scene. It was always a good ol’ time. But for the 5th and 6th grade girls, the oldest aged group in the camp, there wasn’t room for giggles. Every summer this group’s required performance was to choreograph a synchronized swimming routine. Imagine the tween horror, y’all. This in front of the whole camp which included (omg) the 5th and 6th grade boys, and their (omg) Hottie McHotterson counselors. The swim instructors just loved watching us squirm through our back tucks and hide our humiliation under water. I’m sure it was hilarious to everyone but us. I’m also sure we were stronger for it when we finally came up for air.
That kind of moment is what makes us, not breaks us growing up. Like when your boy crush sees your exposed, pre-pubescent boob peek out of your bathing suit after some rough water tubing. I’m just sayin’. We build on those momentary mortifications and thicken our skin until we arrive at points in our lives where we must remember, reflect and use it. It wasn’t so bad. We got through it, and dammit, hold that head high.
Same goes for this chapter as a mama. It’s not so bad when your family shows up to a non-costume party decked out all Scooby Doo because you confused your dates and times. It’s not so bad when your toddler casually exposes something colossally awkward and for-home-ears-only to the neighbor (yet again). It’s the toilet paper still stuck on your shoe of life and it’s pretty funny. It’s parenting. It’s sweat-inducing most of the time and hilarious just the same.
We’re better people for all those little things we learned through the burnt S’mores, soggy creek shoes and a few bad sunburns. Camaraderie. Empathy. The ability to laugh at yourself again and again. Yeah, we’re better parents too.
Happy campers, indeed.