On Not Documenting Every Moment

I had a surreal moment last summer. I’d been attending camps for 39 years, working at the same camp for 30 years, and writing about camps for nearly 20 years when I finally got the chance to drop off my own son at camp. Gulp. The summer of 2011 was Dacha’s first two-week stay at overnight camp. The moment I had been looking forward to (since before I even had children) had finally arrived.

My camp director friends had made all kinds of predictions about that day. “Your kid’s gonna flip out,” some of them guessed, “because there’s been so much build-up to this moment.” “You’re gonna lose your junk,” others speculated, “because you’ll be overanalyzing every second of what Dacha does.” A few also suggested, “You and Dacha are going to be fine. It’s the cabin leader I’m worried about. It’s not every day that the author of The Summer Camp Handbook drops his son off at camp.” Sheesh.

In reality, none of that came true. Dacha was excited to be a camper, having grown up on the property but not having been allowed to participate in anything except waterfront activities. And I stepped through the entire day as if I’d done it a million times (which I kinda had, at least from the point of view of the cabin leader). Surprisingly (or perhaps not), we had remembered to pack everything. Heck, I didn’t even linger to chat up Dacha’s cabin leader. Why should I have? I trained the guy myself.

But I did make one huge mistake. I busted out my flash video recorder and tried to capture the whole experience with megapixel fidelity. The result: I was a step removed from actually savoring the moment. I knew what was going on, but I was so intent on memorializing that half hour from main-lodge check-in to our final goodbye hug that I missed the experience of dropping my son off at camp. And watching the video is completely unsatisfactory. It’s like trying to enjoy a sunset on Skype.

I realize that only a few parents reading this month’s column are youth development professionals who will be dropping off their own flesh and blood at camp this summer. And even fewer of you reading this have written advice columns for parents about creating a successful camp experience for your children. But that doesn’t matter. We all have one thing in common: We love our children and we enjoy being part of their lives. ‘Nuf said.

For this reason, I urge you to keep your smart phone and all other electronics at home on opening day. I’ll allow you one posed photo with the counselor in front of the cabin, but that’s it. Honestly. Plan to spend opening day breathing in the fresh air, listening carefully to your son or daughter’s tone, observing the subtleties in his or her behavior, and interacting face-to-face, not through a lens. The emotional memory you will create that day by being present in the moment will be higher def than any flash video. On opening day, be a parent, not a producer.

For more essays for parents, visit my page on EverythingSummerCamp.com. Select “Getting Ready for Summer Camp with Dr. Chris Thurber & Friends” on the home page.