Author: Steve Farber
Date: 07-31-03 11:36
I'm not old enough to say "when I used to walk through three feet of snow to get to school..."
I am old enough to say that I remember what it was like to wait for the good old mail call. I'm also old enough to remember that on my first day as a camper in 1978, my AM transistor radio was confiscated.
Check out this New York Times article:
July 31, 2003
To: Mom and Dad. Re: Homesickness
By KATIE HAFNER
ELONY MINDICINO talked her mother into breaking camp rules by sending her a cellphone. Michael Brod's parents, distressed by his desperate letters home, were not reassured even when his camp posted his smiling photo to a Web site. And for Eli Graves, upbeat e-mail messages from his mother did not prevent homesickness from cutting short his camp stay.
Digital technology has blazed a trail to summer camp, and with it have come misgivings.
Homesickness has been around longer than summer camp itself, and the traditional tools for assuaging it - letters and packages from home - can now be supplemented by e-mail, faxes, even instant messaging. Many camps enforce an initial communications blackout so that campers will tough it out through early bouts of homesickness. Others allow no outside communication beyond the occasional handwritten letter.
In these nervous times, when children travel to play dates with cellphones in their backpacks, it comes as little surprise that such technology can both salve and heighten summer camp anxiety. (Older children, perhaps embarrassed to admit they are homesick, are less likely to complain about being away from home.) Counter to the notion of a camp sojourn in which children go for weeks without speaking to their parents as they master a sense of independence, parents and offspring alike have come to expect a constant connection. And more and more camps are posting photos at Web sites each day so that parents can see their children in the camp context.
Yet the shift toward staying in touch is a double-edged sword. "Every time you reopen that connection, it intensifies the feelings of homesickness," said Marla Coleman, president of the American Camping Association and co-owner of Camp Echo in the Catskills.
Camp Echo allows limited phone calls and a weekly e-mail session. If parents reply to the e-mail, it is printed out and delivered as regular mail. Campers are also required to write two conventional letters a week.
An e-mail message from a homesick camper can seem like a good idea until the camper starts using it to tap into a parent's guilt. An electronic plea dashed off after a particularly unappetizing camp meal is unlike a handwritten letter in that it arrives seconds after it is written.
"The problem with e-mail is that it's instant," Ms. Coleman said. "So you can't make yourself feel better by saying it's a three-day-old letter." At the same time, if campers are allowed only periodic e-mail sessions, parents can be thrown into emotional upheaval, knowing that their child will not receive their soothing reply to a plaintive message until the next log-on.
For that reason, few summer camps allow two-way e-mail. Some allow faxes in but not out.
And although cellphones are taboo at most camps, they still find their way into many a duffel bag. Ms. Coleman said she confiscates 15 to 20 phones each summer.
Last summer, Ann Mindicino's 13-year-old daughter, Melony, talked her into sending a cellphone from home in Cedarhurst, N.Y., arguing that all her bunkmates at Camp Echo had them. Feeling like a petty criminal but eager to please her daughter and give herself peace of mind, Ms. Mindicino sent a package with the phone and charger slipped into a box of tampons.
"She was caught immediately because it was too heavy," Ms. Mindicino said. The contraband was returned to Ms. Mindicino with a stern form letter. (Melony was back at Camp Echo this summer, without a cellphone.)
One pitfall into which some parents fall is making promises in anticipation of complaints. "The biggest mistake even well-intentioned parents make is to have a pickup deal before kids go off to camp," said Christopher A. Thurber, a clinical psychologist in New Hampshire and co-author of "The Summer Camp Handbook" (Perspective Publishing, 2002). "It's a mental crutch."
Ms. Coleman, who sends a copy of the book to each new family at her camp, agreed. "If a parent offers in advance to rescue a child, they'll most often take the parent up on that offer," she said. "I want them to be educated before they put their foot in their mouth and offer a rescue. Because that dooms. It dooms us all."
Allowing or denying campers the chance to put their misery into electronic form can have its own complications.
Camp Echo allows campers to send e-mail weekly, but only after the first week. So the first messages home from Michael Brod, 10, came by letter, and they started cheerfully enough. The camp was great. The food was great. He passed his swimming test.
But in that first week, the letters soon took a dark turn. "This is the worst summer," he said. "Please pick me up. I want to go home."
Every other day, Jayne Brod and her husband, David, received letters progressively more desperate in tone. "It consumed my thoughts," Ms. Brod said. "I couldn't focus." The Brods called the camp constantly to discuss Michael's homesickness and were repeatedly reassured by Ms. Coleman.
"I knew he was getting significantly better every day," Ms. Coleman said. "He was really mastering his homesickness."
Through a service called eCamp, Camp Echo's staff members shoot 200 to 400 digital photos of campers each day and post them at a Web site so parents can see their children through what Ms. Coleman calls a "one-way window."
Because Ms. Coleman knew the Brods were concerned about their son's adjustment, she was sure to post a photo of Michael smiling and having a great time. But even that did not help. "When I asked Mr. Brod if he had seen that photo of Michael, he replied, 'That's not his happy smile!' " Ms. Coleman recalled.
Then came the worst letter of all. "You said if I'm having a bad time you'd pick me up," Michael wrote. "Please, pick me up the day after you get this letter."
Then an ominous postscript: "I'm not waiting."
With visions of their child making a break for freedom at night, the Brods drove 100 miles from Merrick, N.Y., to talk things over with him and, if necessary, take him home.
When they arrived, Michael was fine, even happy. He had no desire to leave and stuck it out through the full four weeks.
"I always feel badly for parents because they don't get to see the other 23 and a half hours a day when a child is really doing beautifully and having a great time," said Ann Gould, a co-owner of Independent Lake Camp in Orson, Pa. The camp has a liberal communication policy that allows campers to call home and send periodic e-mail, but cellphones are strictly forbidden.
But permitting calls can backfire. "Sometimes parents call and say, 'I've gotten four phone calls in the last 48 hours,' " Ms. Gould said. When such cases make themselves known, she said, a counselor is asked to help.
Ms. Gould said she favored allowing campers to send e-mail because "it's how kids communicate today," she said. "Although we do require a letter a week, the concept of the letter is not part of our culture any longer. E-mail is what they're used to."
But Ms. Brod said she was just as glad that she had not received Michael's entreaties in electronic form.
"I think it would have been harder on us to get e-mails," she said. "With the letters, we'd look at the postmark and say, 'Oh, he wrote this three days ago.' When you get e-mail, it's, 'He's thinking about it right now.' "
After his parents visited, Michael did start sending e-mail, all of it cheerful. "Everyone says that nine days to two weeks is the magic turnaround, and I guess everybody is right," Ms. Brod said.
Indeed, an electronic link can be as hard on a parent as it is on a camper. One evening, Natalie Wexler of Washington was at home using the computer when an instant message from her 12-year-old daughter, Sophie Feldman, appeared on the screen.
"All of a sudden this thing popped up: 'Hi, Mom,' " Ms. Wexler said.
Mother and daughter engaged in a protracted online chat, with Sophie asking her to pick her up from Independent Lake Camp a day earlier than scheduled. Although Sophie was "sick of camp and ready to come home," Ms. Wexler demurred, and finally prevailed.
Both of them had trouble signing off. "It was such a precious connection, I didn't want to break it off, and she obviously didn't want to, either," Ms. Wexler said.
But e-mail did not prevent Eli Graves, now 10, from ending his camp career abruptly last summer.
Joan Lebow, Eli's mother, had been following the anti-homesickness recipe by sending him upbeat e-mail that did not mention his pets or other reminders of home.
"I just tried to be positive without making references that I'd been told were the buzzwords to bring a kid down, like, 'Honey, we miss you,' " she said. But it did not help, because all of her letters and e-mail served as reminders to Eli that he was not at home.
Five days into camp, Ms. Lebow got a call from the camp, Speers-Eljabar Y.M.C.A. camp in Dingmans Ferry, Pa., suggesting that she take him home to South Orange, N.J. His insomnia was wearing down the counseling staff.
"He'd lie there at night and just think about everything," Ms. Lebow said.
This summer, Eli is happily enrolled in a day camp in South Orange. He has no regrets about passing up another chance at sleepaway camp. "Maybe I'm just not that kind of kid," he said.