I have recently had the pleasure of working with The Association of Boarding Schools on a new initiative to increase student enrollment. It’s a category of great interest to me as a parent of two primary school-aged children who are on the verge of leaving their comfortable elementary school “bubble” and hit the real world of middle and high school. As we have delved into the trends affecting the category, I have come to the realization that I am, like many parents in my generation – a helicopter Mom. You know the type, we waited into our 30s and put ourselves through countless medical procedures in order to finally, gleefully, hold the title of “Mother”. Since they were tiny, our children have taken priority over all else in our lives and we have created industries out of finding ways to keep them entertained, enriched and educated. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And, like many of us up here trying to micro-manage the chaos, I have never even considered a boarding school experience because it’s such a departure from what I now know as “normal”.
But sometimes, when I’m looking at my calendar and wondering how I’m going to squeeze a Girl Scout meeting in between the fifth grade field trip information session and baseball practice, I wonder if maybe we’d all be better off without my persistent management of every waking minute. This is, after all, not how I grew up. My parents were involved, sure, as much as I wanted them to be. But, it didn’t seem like they were under the same pressure to enroll in just one more club and take one more lesson. We made friends. We read books. We rode our bikes. And, yes, we were bored. A lot. We survived and we figured out how we like to spend our time – all by ourselves.
So, when a family friend asked me if my two darlings would like to join her two darlings at “sleepaway” camp this past summer, with some hesitance, I investigated. The camp in question boasted “a lifetime of memories!” and “activities for everyone!” over one week in June in North Georgia. Here’s the catch – the kids control it all – they choose their activities when they get there. They find their way from their cabin to where they need to be, when they need to be there. They have to bring what they need or they just don’t have it. They are even responsible for their own hygiene (gasp!). And, to top it all off, there are no screens allowed and no two-way contact with Mom and Dad outside of an emergency. This just wouldn’t work.
But, friends can be persuasive and, shockingly, my kids REALLY wanted to go. They’d heard such great things and it would be so much fun. “We’ll miss you Mom, but, pleeaaase?” So, I reluctantly put down the deposit and started doing what I’m so used to doing, trying to control the experience. I read all of the reviews, watched videos on the best ways to pack, called numerous times to ensure correct bunk assignments near their friends and packed care packages to be received every single day they were there. I’m not kidding, preparation for this week took every spare ounce of my mind space beginning in early May.
And, suddenly, it was here, the day I was to drop off my “babies” in the hands of a bunch of strangers to spend the week potentially drowning in lakes, falling from horses and shooting themselves with bee-bee guns while I nervously waited, completely unaware, for their return. What if they didn’t make any friends? What if they didn’t put on enough sunscreen? What if they choose the wrong activity and they don’t like it? What if we picked them up and they say they don’t ever want to go back? I cried all the way home and spent the next week furiously refreshing the camp’s website to see if I could catch a glimpse of their happy smiling faces. I can only imagine how a Mom facing 9 months of this kind of separation would feel. I was terrified.
The thing about kids is, when left to themselves, they become remarkably independent. My daughter, who would seem to require her own ladies maid at home, showed up smiling in every picture with the right shoes, clean, combed hair and not even a tinge of sunburn. My son is best characterized as an “indoor cat” at home, quite content with his ipad in a sunny spot on the couch. But, he spent the week climbing, swimming, playing, chasing and truly learning what summer is all about.
They both had experiences I could have never given them at home. Because I wasn’t there. It’s hard to admit but it’s true. Left to make their own choices, they made the ones that allowed for adventure, enrichment and maybe even a little education. They tried new things and made new friends and found they liked them. Being at camp gave them the freedom to learn things about themselves that will define their character and personality as adults. And when we picked them up, they literally ran out of their shoes to give us the biggest hugs we’ve gotten in an awfully long while. And then they spent the next few screen free hours telling us how much they loved it, how much fun the activities were and all the funny silly things that happened when nothing else was going on and yes, how much they can’t wait to go back. It was a thrilling experience for them. And, as I learn more and more about some of the amazing programs available at boarding schools in the US, I can’t help but see the similarities.
It’s now time to make our reservation for next summer and I already have my alarm set to make sure we get online right at 7 a.m. so that we don’t miss out on a spot. I may even let them pack their own trunks this year. But, judging from the fact that my son came home with seven pairs of clean underwear after we sent him with eight, we may not be ready for that level of independence just yet. But, we’re getting closer.