By MARTHA IRVINE
The Associated Press
CHICAGO — Eve Pidgeon watched the large group of kids, many of them laughing and chatting excitedly as they boarded a bus for summer sleepaway camp last summer.
“They just couldn’t wait,” says Pidgeon, whose 8-year-old daughter Zoe was among the young campers.
Then Pidgeon looked around and noticed something else: “There were no children crying — just parents.”
These days, camp leaders and family counselors say it’s an increasingly common dynamic. It used to be the homesick kid begging to come home from camp. While that still happens, they’ve noticed that it’s often parents who have more trouble letting go.
They call it “kid-sickness,” a condition attributed in large part to today’s more involved style of parenting. Observers also say it’s only being exacerbated by our ability to be in constant contact by cell phone and computer, as well as many parents’ perception that the world is a more dangerous place.
For leaders at many camps, it’s meant that dealing with parents has become a huge part of their jobs.
“The time and energy camp directors put into preparing parents for camp is now equal to the time they prepare children for camp,” says Peg Smith, head of the American Camp Association, which works with about 2,600 camps nationwide.
Pidgeon readily admits she’s one of those parents.
Last summer, the single, working mother of two wiped away her own tears as Zoe left for 10 days at Camp Maas, about 40 miles northwest of their home in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich. This year, Zoe asked to go for three weeks and her mother said, “yes,” reluctantly.
“It was nothing for our mothers to send us away for two months. We were their jobs 24 hours a day, so perhaps they needed a respite,” Pidgeon says. “They perhaps didn’t ache for their kids on a daily basis, as working parents do.”
Before Zoe went to camp last summer, her mom loaded her daughter’s backpack with stationery and stamps, since the only way she was allowed to contact her family was through handwritten letters. Both her parents, who are divorced, and Zoe’s younger brother Ben wrote to her often.
But as they watched their mailboxes each day, nothing came.
The family frantically checked the camp’s Web site, where photos of campers were regularly posted. And her mom took some comfort in that.
“I could see she was immensely happy, her smile so big it must have hurt her cheeks!” Pidgeon says.
But still, no letters, even after she sent a fax to the camp that read “Zoe Pidgeon: Write to Your Mom Right NOW!!!”
Pidgeon later discovered that, when mailing her letters home, Zoe had decided to use stickers with bees on them that came with a letter-writing kit she’d received. She thought they were the same as the “normal stamps” her mom had given her.
Pidgeon laughed until she cried when she figured out what had happened. But even when she eventually got the letters Zoe had sent, something about them struck her.
“Her letters, when they came, weren’t about missing us — it was all about her amazing adventures,” Pidgeon says.
Zoe had been horseback riding and rock climbing, had taken part in a lip-syncing competition — and tried all kinds of things she never thought she could do.
“They do keep you really busy,” says Zoe, who’s now 9 years old.
“I think you get a half an hour from the time you dry off from your shower after you swim until your next activity. You really don’t have time to miss your parents.”
Too much TLC
Bob Ditter, a therapist who works with children, adolescents and families in Boston, has acted as a consultant to camps since the early 1980s and says he hears stories like those all the time.
He says there’s something to be said for a parent who cares, but not to the point of becoming a “helicopter parent,” a term used for parents who constantly hover over their children, stepping in to monitor their choices and solve their problems, even into adult life.
“Parents love their kids a lot,” Ditter says. But they also need to let go sometimes. He is, for instance, absolutely opposed to the idea of Internet webcams that allow parents to monitor their children at camp.
“Would you put a webcam in your child’s bedroom?” Ditter asks. “I think parents need to trust that all the good work they’ve done teaching their kids values and to stand up for themselves, it’s all there.”
At Camp Arowhan in northern Ontario, they call it a “parent-ectomy.” As is standard policy at many camps, director Joanne Kates doesn’t allow her campers to phone, fax or e-mail their parents. They can, however, use a private service that contracts with the camp to exchange handwritten messages, which are scanned and sent throughout the week.
But she’s clear with parents that they have to allow the camp staff to deal with most issues, including homesickness and conflicts between campers.
“Sending your child away to summer camp requires a terrifying leap of faith,” says Kates, who estimates that she easily deals with “10 times” as many phone calls from worried and sometimes meddling parents as she did a decade ago. She saw a particular shift after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Child psychologist Dan Kindlon has noticed the heightened anxiety when touring the country to speak to parents. He says the large majority raise their hands when asked if they think the world is a more dangerous place than it was 20 years ago.
He questions whether that’s really true, and wonders if we are unnecessarily creating a generation of overanxious children.
“If I were my kid’s coach, and I wanted to create these qualities — for them to be independent, self-sufficient and have integrity — well, I would give them these lessons. I would make it so they had to learn to do things on their own. I would make them braver about the world,” says Kindlon, a Harvard University lecturer who’s written several books, including one on parenting titled “Too Much of a Good Thing.”
Camp can be part of that process for many children, he says, though it’s often something they have to work up to by staying overnight at the home of a friend or relative, for instance. Kindlon calls tactics like these — even encouraging your child to walk 10 feet away in a crowd — “bravery tests.”
Alternatives to sleepaway camps
Still, sleepaway camp might not be for every kid.
Jodi Matossian’s oldest kids have tried it a couple times, but prefer to stay home.
“Some kids love that kind of stuff. Mine, not so much,” says Matossian, a mother in Laguna Niguel, Calif., who has four children, ages 6 to 13. So she’s opted instead to plan fun summer outings they can do together.
“The camp director I want them to have is me,” says Matossian, who counts safety and homesickness among her concerns.
Stephanie White, a mom in Fairfax, Va., has two teen daughters — one who likes going away to camp more than the other. So this year, they compromised and are attending a culinary arts day camp at Stratford University in nearby Falls Church.
“I just think that some kids are independent from the get-go of coming out of the womb — and some are just more comfortable at home,” White says.
Child experts say success at camp has a lot to do with a kid’s own desire to try it, or at least an interest in some of the activities. They agree that you shouldn’t force a kid to go to camp. But they say it’s equally important for parents to remain open to it.
Pidgeon, the mom in Michigan, has thought about that as she’s ironed name tags onto her daughter’s clothing. Zoe leaves for camp later this month, this time with a better understanding about how the U.S. Postal Service works.
As hard as it will be for her mom to let her go, Pidgeon remembers the more confident daughter who returned from camp last year — the one who declared that she’d like to watch less TV and read more (though Zoe now says she kind of regrets that statement).
“She came home a completely different kid, aware of herself in new ways and proud of herself for trying new things she might’ve been afraid to try before,” Pidgeon says.
So she is vowing to better cope with her “Zoe sickness” this year, thinking of camp as a “gift” she’s giving her daughter.
“To take it away would be a selfish thing,” Pidgeon says.
She’ll also remember the grown-up girl who returned last year, wearing a T-shirt that said it all.
It read, “Happy Camper.”