I went to sleep-away camp for two weeks in the Summer between fifth and sixth grades. I was 12, and I did not want to go. I was a "home" kid — in many ways, I still am. While I admittedly watched a lot of TV, I also liked the outdoors, exploring creeks with friends, and going to the lake with my family in the Summer. But I always liked coming home at night to sleep in my bed, with my dog panting on the floor and my parents in the next room.
My older brother had been going to camp for two years when my parents decided it was time for me to go, and I'm sure he was just as thrilled as me that I would be tagging along. I pleaded with my parents not to make me go, to no avail. Their big argument: "Don't you want to go into middle school and tell all the kids that you went to Summer camp?" My dad put his foot down; I was going.
The forested camp was scenic, practically out of a movie. There were all kinds of activities, ranging from physical stuff like sports to craft classes. I could learn how to knit in the morning and waterski in the afternoon. There were bonfires and sing-alongs every night. Objectively, I had the perfect time. I caught the biggest trout anyone had seen that year, my cabin won the lip-sync contest (we sang "All Star" by Smash Mouth, obviously), and we came in second place in the Clean Cabin Challenge . . . which was a pretty big deal.
On paper, I should have been having a great time, but I was miserable. I wrote letters home every day begging my mom to bring me home. The one night I actually started to have a good time, the counselors surprised me with a phone call home, and I was reduced to throaty sobs hearing my mom's voice. I still remember sitting on the counselor's lap crying myself into exhaustion. I'm convinced they remember me as the worst kid ever.
It wasn't just that I was homesick — I was humiliated by my own emotions. "Get your sh*t together," thought 12-year-old me. All the kids around me were having a blast; why was I such a loser? I was acutely aware of how expensive the camp was, and the fact that I wasn't enjoying it made me feel even worse. I tried to muffle my tears and branch out during group events, but it didn't work. My parents warned the counselors that I would get homesick, so they put me in a cabin with girls who were slightly older, so they could mother me a little. Guess what? No one wants to mother you when you're keeping them up all night because you're crying yourself to sleep. My inability to control my emotions isolated me from everyone.
I just wasn't ready.
Camp can be a wonderful gift, an experience that gives kids wings and helps them foster a sense of independence. It did the opposite for me. I was so upset by the fact that I couldn't handle it that I was sure I would never be able to leave home. When I was getting ready to go to college, I flashed back to the feelings of sadness and isolation I had that Summer. I was petrified that I would revert to the scared kid who couldn't hack being away from home. While I did get slightly homesick during my first semester, the fears were mostly unwarranted.
Everyone grows at a different rate emotionally, and I can't say whether or not my parents sending me to camp was the right choice. I certainly don't blame them for trying to give me the experience of a lifetime, but I'm no longer blaming myself for not being able to accept it. If you ask my dad today, he'd say they should have sent me sooner. If you ask my mom, she'd apologize for making me go at all. I don't know what the answer is; maybe with time I would have adapted, or I would have tried to walk the 200 miles home.
Now that I'm an adult, I often think about what I would do in my parents' position. From what I hear about parenting, kids cry about stuff all the time. How are you supposed to know when they're just throwing a tantrum and when they're trying to voice some real emotional pain? I couldn't tell you, but I do promise to listen to them.