Let Go and Let Grow: Summer Camp Lets Kids (and Parents) Thrive

For seven weeks each summer, I’m always left wondering who am I when I’m not being a mom. For the past five years, my twin daughters have attended sleepaway camp, leaving me and my husband with a lot of spare time. Every parent’s dream or nightmare? By now, I should be used to the separation and behave like a seasoned parent, providing pointers for the newbie mothers and advocate my children’s independence, but I find letting go of control is a lot easier said than done.

When it’s time to say goodbye on drop off day, and I’m waiting for my last hug and kiss, I’m the one tightening my hold more than my thirteen-year old daughters. So why do I behave as if I’m being sentenced to forty-nine days of solitary confinement? 

It’s not like I haven’t silently prayed for some space in our household and alone time with my husband to ‘rekindle’ our marriage. However, I find myself at the computer each day looking at the camp’s website to glimpse photos of our daughters having the time of their lives. I’ll sit for as long as it takes to get through all 400 pictures, incessantly clicking the refresh button.

It doesn’t take a therapist to tell me this is not a healthy behavior. In these moments, I’ve nicknamed myself, “Black Hawk,” and I’m horrified that I am acting like a helicopter parent. This is not good.

Let go, I gently tell myself. The girls are fine. They’re safe, learning and growing. As former campers, my husband and I can attest to the multitude of benefits after having lived on our own for a few weeks each summer. Now it’s our kids’ turn to share this same experience and return with confidence and a better sense of self. When the majority of their year is spent under watchful eyes, our kids need some freedom. 

Social media has played into my “homesickness.” I’m not sure I really need to see all those photos on a daily basis. Seriously, who does? When I went to camp, all my parents got were the occasional mailed letters and a few random phone calls. They sent a trunk full of clothes and never saw what we wore other than the first and last day of camp. The Internet didn’t exist and neither did camp photos. Parents didn’t constantly call camps to check in on their kids, at least not without the repercussion that you could end up being called a ‘mama’s boy’ or ‘baby’ and ostracized as a result.  When I went to camp, my parents celebrated their freedom while my sister and I explored ours. I have to remind myself of the ultimate benefit of sending my kids to overnight camp—to help them differentiate. It’s a huge step in their psychological development when they’re learning about self-perceptions and who they are in the world—without their parents.  

So why is it so hard? I’m not sure I know the reason, but I understand why it’s so hard for so many of us to let go and let our children grow. We discover quickly that our kids don’t need us 24/7. That can be disconcerting to a lot of people who need to feel wanted. But in the end, what message are we sending our kids when we don’t give them the space or trust to develop on their own without us intervening or knowing every detail?  The real issue is that too many of us, myself included, have had to redefine our identities when are kids are not at home—be it camp, college or anywhere else. 

As my girls mature into teenagers, our family dynamics are shifting, and I know it’s more important to support and nurture them from afar when they are at sleepaway camp.  I have to trust that I gave my children the autonomy to flourish in the world. Sending them to summer camp gives me a place to start practicing letting go and experiencing a healthy separation. What kind of person am I if I disrespect my children’s independence? I don’t own their lives, their bodies, their emotions or their spirits. I know they are not meant to cling to me forever. If I constantly interfere and problem solve, how will my girls develop the skills to handle their own affairs?  

My generation (X) has defined itself by the things we provide for our children and the influx of “open communication” but too often that morphs into over protectiveness. The moment we give birth, we’re thrown into the deep end of the unknown, doing our best to make the right decisions for their futures. Camp is as much about parental separation as it is for our children.

Once I stopped ‘refreshing’ the button to see camp photos and focused on refreshing myself, the process of letting them go became that much easier. 

For the first time in five years, my daughters could actually see the problem of overprotective parents and kids who couldn’t deal without them. 

“They are totally lost without their moms!” my daughter recently told me on visiting day, sharing her observations. I pulled her close and hugged her, this time letting go with a proud smile. Summer camp has given my kids, and me, self-awareness, independence and coping tools—skills that will help us grow into the mature, capable people we know we can be.  

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