As every parent can attest, the time to sign up for summer camp 2023 was Labor Day. I’m joking (kind of). Truly, though, spaces can fill up fast—we’ve all been there—and, if you’re planning to enroll in a popular program, it helps to have your plans locked down as soon as possible for everyone’s sanity.
But what happens if your plans and your child’s plans don’t quite align? Sometimes, as a parent, you have to put your own dreams aside and let your kid call the shots. My 6th-grader taught me this very important lesson last month.
I’ll start at the beginning: Last year, Andy had a busy summer with various summer camps, lessons, sports clinics, et cetera. There was one particular program that I loved—the facilities! the prestige! the history!—and, at first, he seemed to appreciate it, too. We watched the introductory videos together. We bought the regalia. We filled out the surveys, introducing him to his counselors. We picked electives. We felt like we were part of a camp family.
All the while, I was getting a little vicarious parenting thrill: You see, I never went to summer camps as a kid. I babysat. In my mind, I was giving Andy something that I never had and maybe wished I did.
And so, off he went, a slightly anxious kid trying something wholly new. I was ecstatic: It was a breakthrough! But when the program ended, he was lukewarm. It was fine, he said. Did he make new friends? Eh. Kind of. Did he have fun? Sure. But he missed us more than he liked kayaking. He didn’t want to go back.
Oh, no. I’d had dreams of him becoming a lifer in this particular program, maybe even enrolling as a CIT or a counselor someday. He was going to be a rugged, happy camper, making lifelong friends while breaking out of his middle-school comfort zone. So, without telling him, I simply signed him up again, while I was checking the boxes for all of his other summer plans. So easy. Our names were saved on the website; they had our credit card; we instantly got a cheery welcome email that made me feel like I was being baked by Betty Crocker, welcomed back into the fold. He’d probably change his mind. Right?
Then, last week, he crawled into bed with me late at night. “I’m nervous about going back to camp,” he said. “Mom, I really don’t want to go.”
I launched into my usual spiel: It was early in the year. He’d meet new kids and be in a different cabin. It wasn’t that long to be away. He’d looked so happy in his photos! They had amazing food! OK, I was grasping at straws.
“Mom, you want me to go to camp. You want to tell people I go to camp. I don’t want to go to that camp.”
He had me cold. I was projecting my own wants onto him—and, at 12, he was the more mature one. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t that.
So I actually listened to him: He was open to camp, but he wanted to spend a shorter time away. He wanted to enroll somewhere with a friend. He wanted a different, less structured vibe. And so I thought: Why am I forcing this? Why am I setting him up for months of dread, just so I could have his summer plans on lockdown? Who was I doing this for, exactly? There are tons of camps out there. Why couldn’t I be more open-minded?
And so I emailed the director. I withdrew him from his session. I got my money back. Final. Done. I am now staring down a couple of wide-open summer weeks. I’ll figure out the logistics, but the emotions will be harder: for me, not for him.
But it’s not about me; Andy reminded me of that. He advocated for himself. And I did what was right for 12-year-old him, not for my 43-slash-12-year-old ego. So it’s back to the drawing board: We have a few weeks to fill, and he’s open to finding a new program—one that he wants. I’d love ideas! (Vetted by him, of course.) In the meantime, I’ve learned the ultimate camp lesson: Ultimately, it’s not about you. It’s about your kid.