I am not a helicopter parent.
There are days when I might resemble one, though, and the last fourteen have been amongst those. For the first time in the decade my older daughter has been alive, I knew little to nothing about how she was spending her days and nights. See, she got on the bus for her first trip to overnight camp a fortnight ago, and the uncanny silence began.
Even when I am away from her, I am used to speaking to my daughter every evening. These past two weeks, 7:30 p.m. would roll around, and my anxiety over not being in contact with her would rise up. Most days, that tension would last until somewhere between 10 and 11 a.m., when her camp would post daily pictures of her group and their activities. The silent photos created other anxieties, though, as my wife and I overanalyzed the frozen body language. Was the smile genuine or contrived? Was that a sideways glance or a blink? Why was the brown-haired girl in every picture of the group and my girl appeared more sporadically?
The questions continued when the postman arrived each mid-day. Why hadn't she written? What happened to the pre-addressed and stamped envelopes we provided? Was she too busy, too happy, too lonely, or too tired? Had she decided to write grandma instead?
I am sure it helped her, but not me, that there was communication in the other direction. We diligently wrote her emails through the camp website almost every day, even adopting humorous postures such as a letter from the dog or her baby sister. In the letters we tried to encourage based on what we saw in those photos. "Love seeing your smile, can you try to be in more pictures tomorrow?" or "Looks like you had a great time at the water park, can't wait (hint hint) to hear all about it!"
The occasional communication from the camp itself didn't help much. To be fair, the counselors sent home one very nice update. It was almost too-positive in tone, and the cynics in my family immediately assumed the staff were under orders to paint only a positive picture, one designed to encourage us to send our campers back in the future. The sporadic emails, especially the one about possible head lice, didn't really comfort. I loved the website idea, but the writeups about camper activity sounded too generic, and the daily posting of the camp menu only further elevated my blood pressure. Would my picky eater venture into new territory? Would the "chef's selection" do anything but wrinkle her nose? Would we find out how much she really liked peanut butter?
Over those fourteen days, I was mostly traveling for my day job anyway. The time passed quickly, as I am sure it did for my little camper as well. Still, the anxiety ratcheted back up as I drove to the high school parking lot to await the busses and their precious cargo. Finally, only a few minutes past their scheduled time, two plush coaches ejected our children back to us, tired and sans adrenaline. The hugs were especially nice, for both parties I think.
Perhaps we were overly aggressive in the debrief. What did you do? What did you eat? Did you sleep OK? What did you buy in the canteen? Did you swim in the lake? How was the water park? Did you make any new friends? Were there other girls from Highland Park in your group? Did you like your counselors?
My wife and I realized after a few hours that we hadn't asked the most important question. Do you want to go back next year?
The kids start younger these days. I didn't go to overnight camp until I was twelve, and the experience then was different in so many ways. The camp at that time emphasized sports and physical activities like arts and crafts; today, my ten-year-old reported her favorite things were radio and video. She loved the campfire and swimming in the lake. The water park was awesome. She made friends.
So I expected the answer to the question would be "of course!" Admittedly, I wanted that answer, too, even with all the anxiety, as any parent hopes their child is enjoying the experiences and opportunities life has to offer.
Thus I was caught extremely off-guard by an answer of "cold showers and bad food? Why would I want to do that again? I want to stay home."
Perhaps that is the exhaustion talking. Or it is the let down after two of the most exciting, intense weeks she has had in her life? It's not like I expected my child to gush, "Dad, thanks, that was the most awesomest fun and I want to go back tomorrow!"
Let's see how she feels once school starts again in a month.