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Summer Camp Fail

I love summer camp. Or at least, I loved it when I was a kid. Summer camp meant an escape from the drudgery of the small town I lived in, and the desolation of farm life a (seemingly) million miles away from civilization. Well, a mall. A million miles away from a mall.

It didn't matter where the camp was or what the point was. 4-H Camp? You bet. Catholic, Baptist and Methodist? I could sing all the hymns and fake conversion in under a week. There wasn't a summer camp I would turn down and I assumed my independent, somewhat well-traveled daughter would feel the same.

You know how this is going to end, right?

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Last week, my husband, little boy and I dropped off my 8-year-old daughter at a summer camp in the beautiful San Bernardino mountains at a breathtaking altitude. I just knew that under the tall pines my girl would learn archery, camp songs and make lifetime friends. My husband told her that he used to drink "bug juice" back in his good old days at camp and I supplied her with a journal so she could write copious notes on what was sure to be an epic experience. We both had already sent letters and postcards so she would hear her name called at mail time. It. Was. On.

Lest you think my girl's summer camp nightmare was a forced situation at way too early an age — I mean, I'm thinking that, but I don't want you to — there were many discussions before we wrote the check and secured a sleeping bag. My daughter's classmates were signing up for a sleep-away camp affiliated with her school that lasted twice as long as the camp we chose. When we asked her if she wanted to go with her classmates for the 2-week stay she nodded her head "yes" slowly as she started to cry. I made the executive decision that crying trumped the reluctant agreement her head was trying to make.

It wasn't until I had a weekend conference at this idyllic summer camp not too far away from where we live that we revisited summer camp for our 8-year-old. She was very excited to go "where mommy slept" and as luck would have it she was assigned to the same cabin where I spent a weekend. And this camp was only 6 days. See how happy she is in the photo above? That's how we left her on Sunday afternoon.

As she pointed out, sputtering through her tears, "Mommy, I'm too young for camp!"

As my son reveled in all of the only-child attention, my husband and I just knew our daughter was having the time of her life. Since electronics are forbidden at camp (as they should be) we, for the first time ever, were not allowed to even talk with her by phone. We assured ourselves it was much harder on us than her ... until I got an actual phone call from the camp director.

Yep, the "no phone" rules were about to get busted up as the camp director explained that I might need to talk to my daughter, who had been crying in between activities all day long. My tough as nails, don't-need-to-hold-your-hand daughter had been reduced to in-between lanyard-making tears. The culprit? An 8-year-old boy and a side of homesickness.

This is not a case of bullying at camp, of which there are many ways to neutralize, but rather a case of a little boy asking my little girl to the Friday night dance. Instead of being thrilled like Cinderella, my girl was all, WTF? She wanted to come home before the clock struck dance o'clock as she could not deal.

Most camp staffers are well-versed at homesickness and how to manage a camper's anxiety. The usual tactics were not working with my daughter, however, which is where I came in as an option. Sadly, it did not help either. You haven't felt pain as a mother until your child is wailing like an injured animal, "Mommmmmmmmmmmy!" across the phone lines. I simply thought that she was "having a moment" and she would move on and enjoy camp if only my husband (who was white-knuckling it sitting next to me overhearing the screams) and I stayed firm and made her stay and enjoy camp, dammit! We weren't those soft helicopter parents who do whatever the children want at any time. We were teaching grit!

Every angle was attempted by both myself and the director as well as the much-younger camp counselors. The redirect, the assurances that you CAN say no to a boy and it's no big deal, the negotiations and even the changing of the name of the "Dance" to the "Camp Jam," all were failed attempts at getting my daughter to hang in there. Girlfriend was done and she did not care what any adult had to say about it. As she pointed out, sputtering through her tears, "Mommy, I'm too young for camp!"

And she was. Clearly.

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No matter how badly she wanted to be a big girl with her OMGs, and her scoping out places to get her ears pierced; no matter how many Harry Potter and graphic novels read: my 8-year-old was too young for camp. We had to throw in the towel and go pick her tiny butt up before camp was over. Not very grit-worthy.

Even though I know my daughter needed us, and needed our reassurances that we would take care of her when the going gets rough, I still do wonder what lesson she just learned. Cry hard enough and mom and dad will do anything? Or, she can trust that her family will come through when she needs us. I honestly don't know, and am still wondering which was worse — our picking her up early, or our not picking her up early enough. I'm not even sure what lesson I learned, other than, damn I hate hearing my little girl in distress. Was she too young for camp? Was I trying to make her into a mini-me? Am I already too late in having a talk about unwanted attention?

I do know one thing. I'm totally not ready for my kids to be at camp.

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