Has your son or daughter started to ask about sleepaway camp? Do you wonder if they are old enough or mature enough to go? This post from a mom of a seven-year-old gives a great perspective on just that!

Yesterday, we put my daughter on a van with her two good friends and a counselor. That van drove four hours, to a sleep away camp I’ve never seen, where my daughter will spend the next 11 days with 250 new friends.  My daughter will turn eight in two months, just after her third grade school year starts next month.

My husband thinks it is crazy I signed our daughter up so young for sleep away camp. He’s certainly not opposed to the idea in general, he just thinks it is unnecessary this early in her life to send her away to camp, not to mention the expense of this decision.  Which, it turns out, is not Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account eligible, for some reason.

To a certain extent, I agree. I’ve wondered what in the world I was thinking a few months ago – she’s not even eight!  More often than not, she comes out of the shower with globs of shampoo still on her half wet head of hair. She wipes here dirty hands on her shirts and she makes just as big a mess eating as her just turned six-year-old brother.  But my goodness is she confident and strong.  During the past year, she has become outgoing, self-assured and silly, so very silly.  I want to continue to allow her to grow and develop these essential personality traits. But she’s also stifled. Her time is so over programmed – she barely has time to build Legos with her brother.  Or go play outside on the rope swing my husband painstakingly climbed a tree with his dad to install.  Or even schedule playdates with her friends.  The funny thing is, she doesn’t even do half as many activities as most of her friends.

But more so than all that, I’ve realized, even with my overprotective mother, I had way more freedom as a child. Way more freedom to go and explore our world on my own or with friends.  To this day, I have fond, vivid memories of traipsing deep into the woods and walking through the creek to explore for hours on end with my friends and my siblings.  I remember avoiding what we swore was quicksand in the creek.  And I remember falling in and getting wet.  My mother hadn’t a clue where we were or when we would be home.  And that was okay.  We had freedom.  We could take risks and learn from our mistakes on our own.  And best of all, at least from my perspective as a child, my mother was calm and okay with that.

I wish I could parent like that. Sadly, the number of stories of abductions and worse just terrify me.  I don’t know if it happens more frequently than when we were kids or we just hear about it more with all the access to news and social media these days.  Nonetheless, the bottom line is I’m not comfortable cutting the cord and letting my kids explore with that same level of freedom.  Not when I’m around, at least.  But my seven-year-old deserves that freedom and time for exploration.  That’s part of being a kid.  She deserves to get to be a kid.  A kid covered in dirt, covered in paint and exposed to freedom. I can think of no better way to give her this gift during her childhood at this age than by sending her to sleepaway camp.

Before my daughter got on that van to camp, we were worried about what she needed to know so she would feel happy and comfortable at camp. What we should communicate to her before she embarked on this great adventure.  We talked about the ups and downs she might feel and how that would be okay.  We made sure she knew that even if she felt sad for a bit, she’d become happy again – just like at home.  What I didn’t think about was how her being away would feel as the parent and what would be different about this than our typical day-to-day interactions.  In 24 short hours, I’ve realized giving my child the gift of freedom means I have to give myself permission to be comfortable with not knowing.

Sure, I’ve had some practice with this already. I send my kids to elementary school each day for seven and a half hours, counting bus time.  I realize there’s a good bit of not knowing that occurs during the school year.  I don’t know how my son felt each minute of the day.  Who my daughter ate and chatted with at lunch.  If he sat on the buddy bench to find a playmate on the playground.  How she felt during the spelling test.  But at the end of the day, my kids come home to me bubbling with information they want to share with me.  Sometimes we have to practice taking turns so they don’t talk simultaneously with their excitement to share what happened during the day.  I have the opportunity to ask questions.  I don’t get to learn it all, but I hear quite a bit this way.

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Now, with my daughter away at sleepaway camp, I have to be comfortable with 11 more days of not knowing. Admittedly, this is really hard.  I have an acute awareness that it is even harder in today’s technological age than I think it probably was when our generation went to sleepaway camp.  Our parents had day-to-day practice not knowing, in a way today’s parents do not.  There wasn’t email, so I imagine camps didn’t send out general updates three times a week while we were at camp.  Digital photography didn’t exist, therefore several hundred pictures to sift through each day hoping to catch a glimpse of one’s child wasn’t a possibility.  Parents and kids were used to mailing letters to staying in touch with family and friends – that was the norm, now that is a special occurrence.

As parents in the 21st century, we regularly see information our kids don’t necessarily choose to share with us.  Often, we see it before they even have the opportunity to share it with us.  Frankly, we’ve come to expect this.  There have been times my kids come home so excited to tell me about something, or proud they remembered what they need for to prepare for the field trip or to return to school the next day, only I already know this information – the teacher or the camp circulated important messages via email earlier in the day.

This expectation of instant communication and photograph sharing has set us up for failure as parents sending our kids to sleep away camp for the first time. We are so used to receiving this constant communication, that sending our kids off to camp is so much more challenging than I would have anticipated.

However, I know that my daughter is at sleepaway camp because I decided she was ready for the experience. We selected the camp that felt right, that we trusted to provide positive experiences for her.  When our family selected the camp, I knew they had the tools in place to support her if she had a rough day, just like we all have every so often.  I trusted then, and I know now, that my fierce, silly, sassy 7-year-old is ready to explore her world, on her terms.  She’s ready to take advantage of this gift of freedom for the next twelve days.  I’m trusting that she has that strength in her, just as I have the strength in me to refrain from refreshing the camp photo site every few minutes, just in case I can catch a glimpse of my daughter taking advantage of her gift of freedom.

Judith Cabelli is a full-time working mom of two striving every day to strike a balance between working and spending quality time with her family. When she isnt working as an affordable housing real estate development project manager, she keeps busy as her daughter’s Girl Scout Troop Brownie Leader and chauffeuring her two elementary school kids to dance, scouts and violin lessons.

Your kid may not be too young for sleepaway camp! Read this mom's post on why she knew her daughter was ready and your kid might be too!

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