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Parenting Advice: No Surprises At Sleep-Away Camp, Please

By Tina Traster

January 26, 2010 -- The business of raising a child these days can be dark and disconcerting. Especially if you're sitting at a sleep-away camp orientation with nail-biting parents, as I was recently. It was a cold January day when we gathered in an airless hotel suite for a question-and-answer session with the program director for an upstate sleep-away camp. Parents and children sat around a table piled with pretzels and potato chips, while video of campers doing magic, woodworking, boating and swimming played on a screen on the wall.

Just as we joined the group at the table, the director was assuring a nervous mom that the camp is absolutely peanut-free. Her apple-cheeked daughter, maybe a nine-year-old, said "that's good because I can die if I eat peanuts."

Her concern segued to mine. Our daughter, who will be eight when she goes to sleep-away camp for the first time, is a vegetarian with a squeaky-clean diet. Judging from the Tootsie rolls on the table, I wasn't sure I believed the program director when she told me children always have a vegetarian option, and that "doesn't mean throwing tofu on a salad."

I can imagine my food neurosis sounded trite to other parents, like the mother who asked whether the counselors were screened and given background checks. Apparently they are. Counselors need to be 21 and free of a rap sheet. Those hired from oversees are screened by the INS. And if that isn't enough, the program director, with 45 years under her belt, told this parent she has a sixth sense and knows when she's sniffing trouble. (A fine HR skill).

I'm in the room but my mind floats back to my first year as a sleep-away camp counselor. I am 17. Headed to college that fall. I was given the job because my friend Caroline brought me to camp. No fingerprints. Or blood samples.

Then the same parent asked another question pertaining to her nine-year-old son.

"Will he be exposed to the older children? And how much are these older children allowed to (fingers making parenthesis) "socialize with each other?"

The program director practically assured her the children leave their hormones at home when they come to camp.

I couldn't repress an audible snigger.

At that, the boy's father, hoping to make his wife's concern look less dramatic, said, "We understand kids explore. We just don't want a Patrick Swayze moment!"

As my daughter is turning eight, sexuality is the last thing on my mind, and hers. But the father's remark made me wonder whether my parents ached over releasing me into a world where I had room to explore - and did.

In my day, I recall camp director 'Uncle Bill' bringing his dog-and-pony slideshow to our living room. Buffed and tan, he narrated as he clicked the slide projector, showing us idyllic summer fun. I'm not even sure my parents ever thought to ask questions like "where is the nearest hospital" or "does the camp allow religious proselytizing?" My parents were probably more interested in where the kids came from and whether they could pay the tuition in installments.

Everything important that happened to me by the time I turned 19 happened at sleep-away camp. I made mistakes. I had a trunk-full of life lessons to bring forth into adulthood. I think of sleep-away camp as the most unadulterated part of childhood. I tasted freedom and learned to know parts of myself I may not have known until much later on. I wrote home often. I don't think my parents ever worried too much - unless they did and I wasn't aware of it.

Today parents want answers to questions that are not always answerable. You can do background checks on counselors and still end up with a child molester. You can "separate" the boys and girls but you can't stop raging libidinous adolescents (everyone remembers bunk raids - and what would camp be without them?) You can tell me my daughter won't eat junk food but I know it isn't true.

Parents are accustomed to guarantees and assurances because our children are so often in controlled structured settings. Going out to play isn't even a concept. And as unnerving as it might be, going to a sleep-away camp does not come with a ready script. Which I think is good. A little bit of surprise and wonder helps children figure out who they are.

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