My 6-Year-Old Son’s First Sleepaway Camp Experience

Editor’s Note: What is it like to be a camp director and then suddenly find yourself on the opposite side, as a parent sending your child off to sleepaway camp? In this blog series I write about the adventure of sending my eldest child, six-year-old Mason, to his first camp experience. Previous posts include:

​I left off in my last post in this blog series after having dropped Mason off at camp and then realizing we had left his favorite stuffed animal — way to go me! 🙁 — back at Camp Alleghany for Girls, where we spend our summers (I’m one of the directors there).

I actually realized the mistake just after we said good-bye to Mason and I asked his camp directors what they thought. They said he’d probably notice that he didn’t have it because during rest hour the kids in his cabin like to toss their animals to each other while sitting on their beds. Plus, it was a comfort from home that I know he wanted.

Miraculously, the directors mentioned that they’d actually be in nearby Lewisburg, West Virginia the next day and offered to rendezvous with me so we could hand “Georgie” the monkey off. Problem solved (well, except for that Mason and Georgie would have at least 24 hours apart)! I hoped they would both cope just fine.

A Week Apart

So back the rest of us (me, my husband Matt, and our two younger sons) went to our camp and I jumped back into my role as a director at Alleghany, but also put on my slightly-nervous-mom-my-kid-is-away-from-home hat.

I’m actually so busy at camp (have I mentioned that before?!) that I thankfully wasn’t thinking about Mason every waking second, which was good.

Now Matt may have been thinking about Mason a little bit more because Matt stays back at our Staunton, Virginia home during the week and, except for his job, is all on his lonesome to…I dunno, imagine the worst, right?! Or so I imagine about Matt! Has to cook his own meals, wonder about the family a hundred miles away, man the remote control all by himself. Surely he must be fraught with worry, right? Ha ha!

Well, whatever the case, we all think about each other when we’re apart, that’s for sure! Which leads to how we were thinking about Mason on this first little adventure away to a new place. We were definitely curious.

Mason’s camp posts pictures of their campers just like we do at Camp Alleghany for Girls, on a password protected parent portal. So Matt and I would diligently check each evening to see if Mason was in any pics and confer with each other. We didn’t see any the first day and just concluded, “Oh well, no biggie.”

I personally understand how hard it is to capture each kid at camp while they’re busy having so much fun and there’s so much going on in so many different areas and there’s only so much extra staff to document it all. The focus is more on the doing of the fun than the recording of the fun, though obviously we do capture as much as we can.

Waiting, Wondering, and a little Worrying

So the next day (Mason’s first full day) I received a phone call from one of the program directors, who also serves as a Head Counselor for Mason’s cabin. And, Murphy’s Law being right on cue, I missed the call because I rarely answer my personal cell during the summer.

Fortunately the counselor followed up with a simple “checking in” email to let me know that Mason was doing well, and that he did have some ups and downs the day he arrived but that he’s settling in to a routine. I thought this was a nice touch — to hear from the camp the very next day.

Then one of the main directors called to set up a meeting for the all important “Georgie” exchange.

She told me Mason had been teary on Sunday when we dropped him off, a little later after we had left. I figured that was normal but I was VERY surprised! I didn’t expect this at all from him, and didn’t even talk to him about missing home. He never brought up homesickness fears or said he was anxious or nervous to be away from us, and it truly never crossed my mind that he’d fret.

But just as I see our professionalism and comforting words in action for some first time campers here, I trusted the camp and their counselors to handle it. So, again, I wasn’t worried.

We made our plan to meet up that evening, and when I saw the directors in town and gave them Georgie, of course I asked how Mason was doing. They told me he’s doing well but that he hadn’t passed his swim test and that he’d been really upset about it and cried about it.

Watershed Moments

At this point I have to admit that I started to feel a little upset. It just seemed like a lot of bad news in one day. But I decided to take a deep breath, keep calm, trust, and take it in stride.

First off, I wouldn’t have expected Mason to pass the somewhat rigorous test at age six and at his size. He probably wouldn’t pass it here at ‘Ghany either. Plenty of the smaller girls don’t. Plus, the directors had told me all the water things he could still do (just like at Alleghany — campers who don’t pass simply have to wear a Personal Floatation Device at all times in the water).

But I will say, I was surprised at how open and kindly blunt the directors had been up to this point —  from the email, to the phone call, and this in-person meeting, all of them mentioned crying. It was something I wasn’t expecting from Mason, but also something I don’t myself do as a camp director — deliver news about a camper crying in the first couple days.

And I have my reasons, so bear with me here.

Before we get too into that (I’ll have a later edition of this blog detailing things I learned as a camp director from having a more personal relationship with Mason’s camp), I’ll just add that I wasn’t appalled or angry or anything. I was more…intrigued. This was a different communication style, and I thought it had its merits. More on that later…

In the end, again I know from experience that kids easily cry the first couple of days while adjusting. Really, it’s SO normal.

It’s a new place, new people, a new routine, a different bed, bathroom, eating space, and a different schedule. That would be hard for most adults to adjust to easily. A little initial crying is perfectly developmentally appropriate and even, quite frankly, healthy! Being in touch with normal feelings is a good thing as long as it passes in the reasonable span of time. So, again, I took it with a grain of salt and went on my way to focusing on my work at hand back at my camp.

Thinking about it more that evening, I started to think about the life lessons Mason was learning at camp, especially by not passing the swim test. To learn how to deal with disappointment without mom and dad there, but with supportive and encouraging friends (the directors told me how everyone rallied around him and was so supportive when he was upset), I couldn’t help but feel that this was a not-too-traumatic event and so a great character building experience for him!

And to be in such a supportive community where it is safe to “fail?” This is what I preach and teach all year long as I bring first-time camp parents into the summer camp experience. I knew in the end this would be really good for Mason and that he really was ok.

Camera Obscura

So back to my own camp life again but peppered with a little bit of checking pictures on their camp website every now and then. I mean, I was a camp mom now, too!

We slowly started to see a few pictures of Mason. But darn! He wasn’t smiling!

Then another…no smile.

And a third…no smile.

And on top of his tight-lipped lack of visible animation, he wasn’t seeming to interact with any other campers or friends!

All of this was on maybe day three of him being at camp, and my little Mason is a happy-go-lucky BIG smiler! What gives?

This is when I finally felt the sadness I’m sure so many other camp parents have felt, and I got tears in my eyes and just wondered WHY in the world was he never smiling? Did he have no friends? What was going on? My mind was racing.

So…I became THAT parent. Against Matt’s wishes, and my own better instincts, I emailed the directors to check in.

Now, as a director myself, I really struggle with the emails from parents about photos like this. It’s one reason I don’t love posting photos in the first place.

In fact, posting online photos is a modern convention that was unheard of in the camp world until the pervasiveness of the Internet and the demands of social media starting encroaching on the camp world and made camp less of an island of childhood summer joys and too much of a real-time fishbowl for the folks “out there.”

I know that’s a strong view, but I spent my whole life in the camp world, grew up at Alleghany, and there’s something special about a camp truly being time…AWAY! It’s good for kids, parents, families, camp, and life in general. It’s a reset. A natural sanctuary. A retreat.

And as wonderful as after-camp yearbook photos are, with their reminiscences and curation, real-time camp photos are, in direct proportion, less so. They’re just intrusive and somewhat problematic, as I now see from BOTH sides of the experience. They make you feel feelings you can’t do anything constructive about. Just worry, and maybe call. But they paint a false “real-time” picture of the camp experience.

Every camp is struggling with this.

But, now I was that parent. Trust me, I hang my head in shame here. 🙁

I wrote in and said that we had seen Mason in a handful of photos with no smile and kinda alone, no apparent friends. They wrote back almost immediately and said he’d been having a blast and definitely had friends.

They actually texted me a few pictures right then and there, and said they’d make sure the photographer knew to get a few pictures of him smiling. So I was reassured in that moment, and truly never gave it another thought. (But I did continue to kick myself a little bit  — with a little help from Matt —  for not just trusting in the experience as I encourage all other parents to do!

I get it — it’s easier to be a camp director than to be a camp parent. I sympathize, I truly do!

After that, we did see a couple of pictures of Mason smiling and enjoying himself. I still feel a little badly that I emailed about that, but the directors were SO kind about it and said they were glad I did (they’re so nice!!!).

Smoke Signals and Tin Can Telephones

Aside from seeing Mason in photos, the other sign of life was the couple of letters we received from him.

His camp has the one-way emails like we do here at ‘Ghany (parents sign up to send one-way emails, we print them and deliver them). However, his camp also does the return emails, where the campers write on a bar coded paper for their account, and then the papers are scanned and appear in our parent portal. Alleghany hasn’t taken this step yet because it seems like quite a bit of man power!

At Mason’s camp they’re required to write at least one letter every other day. So at minimum Mason should have written three letters. We sent him with a whole lot more actual paper stationery than that and email credits, so I was actually hoping for more!

On the second day he was there, we received our first enlightening email from him:

I am having a good time on my first day. I hope you are having a safe ride home.

And that was it!

Two days later, we got our second in-depth missive:

Happy Fourth of July. I am having a good time at Fourth of July.

…and the final sentence is illegible but I sense the heart of a minimalist poet at work here. We got…wait for it…the bare minimum required of him!

But I thought to myself, “Well maybe he’s using the stationery we sent with him, and maybe we’ll receive some letters in the mail, likely after he’s back.

I was still hopeful. Or delusional. Or something.

The rest of the week flew by and was pretty uneventful, and all of a sudden it was time to pick him up!

Stay tuned for our reunion and all his stories as well as my further reflections on seeing things first-hand from the parent side of things while also wearing my camp director’s hat.

— Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls

You can also download my FREE e-book, 3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Experience Early. It’s a great resource to share with friends, or if you are a first-time camp family and you wonder what sleepaway camp would be like for your child.