Ah, the perennial fears of parenthood. They come for us all.
“They need to be ready for kindergarten.”
“If we don’t make them do chores, they’ll be entitled and won’t know how to do anything for themselves.”
“They need to learn that it’s not okay.”
“My 4 year old will never have friends if they keep being mean to the kids at preschool.”
“If I don’t put them in sports when they’re young, they’ll never be able to play later because the other kids will be so much more advanced.”
We’re well-intentioned. We think we’re looking out for them. We think we know best, or certainly better than they do. They’re only children, they don’t know. We get lost in our own regrets and quirks of our own childhoods and want to protect our children from repeating those errors. We just want them to succeed. We mean well.
And somewhere along the way–or at many points along the way–the fear erodes trust and undermines respect and autonomy. With that in mind, I want to share a little story of my own. Anyone who knows me knows I love stories. Here we go.
When I was 10 and 11 years old, I went to camp (what many now call “sleepaway camp”, we just called it “camp”–there was “camp” and “day camp.”). I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and went to camp at a place called “Echo Mountain Ranch” in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was on Bear Creek Road, I still remember that 55 years later (I do have a brain that stores lots of details that I have absolutely no use for, speaking of quirks.) My best friend also went, and we were in the same cabin. I have a cool permanent reference point for when I was there because the moon landing happened while I was at camp. I remember we all went outside the dining hall and stood on the grass and looked up at the moon, in total amazement that there were people up there, walking around. It was the 60’s, so when we sat around at campfire circles at night, we learned songs like “For What It’s Worth” (which I still insist is called “Something’s Happening Here”) and anti-war songs (though I didn’t know that), with the oh-so-cool bearded college age counselors playing guitar. I don’t remember how long camp was–maybe 3 weeks? Who knows. I was a bit of an awkward 10 year old, I wasn’t the most confident or extroverted of kids, so it wasn’t without its struggles for me, but I did it, and as you can tell, it’s a source of many lasting and important memories for me. This is me at camp. 🙂
Years later, when I was in college (and for a couple years after graduation), I worked at a camp in Sequoia National Forest, among the majestic and mighty Sequoias. I ran the pool, taught swimming, and was (naturally) the head of the unit where the youngest campers lived. Those years were among the best of my life to this day, and I still treasure the lifelong friends I made there. It was irreplaceable, life-changing, so much a part of who I am to this day. This was me, as a counselor.
Camp is life. And so, you know, I wanted my daughter to have that. I so wanted my daughter to have that. You know that list above about being well-intentioned and all that? Yeah. That. Times twenty. Just ask my daughter.
So, I did all the things. Shared photos, memories, songs, stories. Spent time researching the best places that weren’t too far away. And spent more time than I care to admit trying to persuade, cajole, insist, coerce, you name it. I want this for you. You won’t understand until you go. Then you’ll see. I can’t bear the thought of you not having this.
Yeah. Loads and loads of projection. What a mess.
As you probably guessed by now, my daughter didn’t want any part of it. That’s your thing, not mine. You like camping and being in nature, I don’t. I’m not doing that. And of course, the clincher, which not so conveniently actually ramps up the fear and catastrophizing, “I can’t/don’t want to be away from you.”
Oh, great. This is the moment that many of you undoubtedly recognize: So, does this mean that I should help her to push through it? Is it an important growth opportunity? Is this one of those things we know about anxiety, where “giving in to it” actually makes anxiety worse? Or…..do I accept that we’re different? That this isn’t her thing? Respect her preferences? Acknowledge that maybe she’s not ready? If I do that, do I try again next year? Or is that still projection and pushiness? Is it even a readiness issue rather than a personal preference issue? Am I allowing anxiety to rule the day?
Yeah. I know this place. I’ve been there.
I just couldn’t decide. I was at war with myself over those words. And by association, in quite a war with my child as well. If I am anything, it is tenacious. Anyone who knows me will testify to that. I never give up. I never let go. (Well, not never, but it’s not pretty.). And man, this was apparently my “hill to die on.”
CAMP. IS. GOOD. YOU. WILL. LOVE. IT. YOU’LL SEE.
So this is where it takes a bit of a turn. Because at some point, someone has to make a decision. So (drum roll), I did. I decided to send her to a camp for one week. Of course (insert eye roll here) I chose a camp that was just like me. Progressive, kinda “crunchy”, associated with UU communities. In today’s parlance, we might say “woke.” I told her she was going. I don’t want to belabor the whole story here, so let me just say that it was a massive failure. Or, to put more of an accountability lens on it, it was a massive mistake on my part. She wanted to come home. They let her call (grrrr.) We refused. When we came to pick her up at the end of the week, she (my very attached and affectionate girl) wouldn’t make eye contact and walked right by us. And now, in 2023, a decade and a half later, it still stands out, right there on her list of “things she will never really forgive me for.” (Don’t worry, our relationship has withstood the trauma, it’s all good and strong and wonderful…we just don’t bring it up, LOL.)
But I haven’t gotten to the best part. I’ve already mentioned that this was, for some reason, the hill I was going to die on (I’m so grateful I haven’t had many such hills!) This takes us to one of the finer (cough cough) moments of my parenting journey. One day we were in the thick of it. She insisted, angrily, that I was pushing her into something completely unacceptable, and I insisted (sometimes angrily) that, essentially, I knew better. We were both pretty escalated, and at one point, when she was insisting that she just couldn’t be away from me, I fell into that familiar pit, and I shouted (not so nicely): “HOW ARE YOU EVER GOING TO GO AWAY TO COLLEGE??”
Hmm. How old was she when you said this, Robin?
Um. She was EIGHT.
Yup. There it is. Number whatever on the list of Stupid Things Parents Say.
But here, my friends, is where the wisdom comes down. And dammit, doesn’t the wisdom almost always seem to come from our children? (I hate that, don’t you just hate that they’re so much smarter than we are??)
You know what she said when I said that Stupid Thing? She said–quite calmly and assuredly:
I don’t recall whether I took it well. I’m kind of suspecting that I didn’t. I probably said something snarky and sarcastic back to her, something like “Yeah. We’ll see.” I was dysregulated. We all have our moments.
But you know, I took it in. In a big way. It was the reminder, the lesson that I needed. It shook me back, reminded me back, into my deep and abiding conviction that children often do know better than we do, especially about themselves. Not always. But a lot more often than most parents are willing to concede. And even if turns out that they don’t know better in this instance, isn’t that still a part of their learning and experience, part of their own sometimes rocky path?
“I’ll be older then.” I mean, how do you argue with that? It’s undeniably true. She will be older. Does that mean that it will be easy? I don’t know. But she’ll definitely be older. And she’ll definitely have more coping strategies and skills, because those come with age.
For what it’s worth, she also said that going to college was something that you “have to do.” What she meant is that she anticipated it being a logical and important step in the trajectory of her life, on her path to being and doing what she wanted to be and do in life. And camp was not something you have to do, it’s optional. So no thank you. Yet another thing that made sense.
As I mentioned, it’s now been 15 years. I have never forgotten those words. She hit me in the back of the head with a metaphorical 2 x 4, made from the very fibers of my own approach and beliefs. I got it. And I’ve never forgotten it. “I’ll be older then.” Yup. We all need a good whack on the head now and then.
So, given that this was 15 years ago, I bet you’re wondering about the two postscripts to this story, namely did she ever go “away from us” before college, and what did happen when she “went away to college?” She did. She went away on school trips, with teachers and friends. She went away on short trips. In high school, she went away to a summer program at a university about an hour away and was there for a week. Some of it was hard, some not so hard. It just was what it was. She did it. She wanted to do it. She felt ready to do it. She struggled some of the time, and not some of the time. She learned about herself. And I learned about her as well. And then, there’s college.
She was doggedly determined not to go any further than a few hours by car, for much the same reasons that she didn’t want to go to camp. But, as things will happen, she fell head over heels in love with a school that was much further than that, that required air travel to get home. And this is where the rubber met the road for me. I had been hearing “I’ll be older then” in my head for more than a decade by then…but did I really believe it? I have to admit, I had my doubts. I cleared my calendar for the first couple of months that she was there in case some sort of intervention was needed.
It never happened. She was right. At eight. Absolutely, completely, totally right.
In my “best case” scenario, I had anticipated an agonizing separation when we left at the end of move-in and orientation. The anxiety and separation anxiety I had seen over the prior 18 years, the camp trauma come to life once again, but in a much bigger, longer-distance-away, way. We’d all still be okay. She could do this. We could do this. We’d do whatever we had to do to figure it out. Maybe she wasn’t as “older” as she thought she would be.
The day came. We were in the administration building, having looked around the campus bookstore. She had two newfound friends nearby. She said, very casually, “You know, there are orientation events that I have to be almost all the rest of the day, so I don’t think it makes much sense for you to stick around just to see me for 20 minutes in a few hours, so I think you should just go. I have to get to the next event.” We hugged, and she walked off with her two friends. Being the sentimental parents that we are, we took a picture as she walked away. And I heard it: “I’ll be older then.” So you will be, my girl. So you are.