The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Staying in touch with your kid at summer camp is much easier now. It’s terrible.

Sometimes it's better not to know.

Photo: flickr user <a href="">Always Shooting</a> CC License 2.0
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When my son left last summer for his first time at sleep away camp, I expected we wouldn’t get many letters. He was 8, after all, and his penmanship looked like he was being poked in the arm by rhinos every time he picked up a pencil. I’d been a prolific letter writer as a child due to a combination of enjoying writing and loathing camp. Some of my favorite camp memories revolve around rest hour, that time when I could be left alone to write my heart out. (My bunk hates me but that’s okay because I hate them too! Everyone has Umbro shorts but me! Waterskiing is awesome.) My brother, on the other hand, loved camp and typically managed to send out only the required I got to camp. I am in bunk 8 missive before falling silent for his remaining eight weeks away.

I was hoping that my son’s postal habits would tend more toward my brother’s side of the spectrum – I wanted to know he was fine, but to mostly be too busy and happy to bother writing. I was prepared for a degree of separation. What I didn’t count on was how confusing the modern era has made camp communication.

As I watched the camp bus pull away, I wondered what kind of insane thing I’d done, sending my son off to live with strangers for four weeks with no ability to make so much as a phone call for the first week. How was I going to make it through the summer? I needn’t have worried. An hour later, my phone chimed with a text from the camp updating me as to the status of the bus. It was heading toward Westchester but running behind schedule. A few hours later, it chimed again. The bus had entered the state of Massachusetts.

It was simultaneously too much information and not enough. On the one hand, I felt reassured that the camp kept in such close contact with parents. I was glad to hear the bus had arrived safely. On the other hand, the idea that the bus would not arrive safely hadn’t crossed my mind until the camp felt obliged to tell me. Why had the bus been running behind schedule? Was there something wrong with the bus that they weren’t telling us? And then hours passed with no further updates. Had the bus driven off a cliff en route to Maine? Without the updates, I would have waved goodbye as the bus left and assumed that all was well. But now I was in a state of nervous panic. And then in the early evening, a final text: The bus had made it to the camp in Maine.

I began checking the camp blog first thing each day, and discovered that it, too, only stoked my anxiety. My son had been at camp for nearly a week and had yet to make an appearance on the blog. I spent every morning reading about what a group of kids I’d never met had been up to the previous day. I scanned through cheery descriptions of camp-wide games involving riddles, shout outs to kids I didn’t know who had passed their swim tests, and multiple references to the beauty of the camp’s lake. But not a single mention of my son. As I clicked through picture after picture of smiling campers shooting arrows and sailing, fear crept into my heart. Why wasn’t he in any of the pictures? Was he off in a corner crying? Was he refusing to participate? Was he so homesick that he was spending all his time at the nurse’s station buried under blankets?

As a parent I’m often awash in child-related information. Other parents e-mail me real-time pictures of my kids on playdates. Babysitters text me while I’m out to dinner to ask where the Monopoly set is. Once my son tweeted me from school as part of a class project. Each new communication leaves me both annoyed and thrilled. I don’t like being plucked out of my temporary child-free state, a time when I’m typically engaged in some other activity like earning a living or having an adult conversation or simply enjoying not being needed by small children, to have my child’s existence affirmed. But then I look at the cute playdate pictures or read my son’s tweet, which was about how he wanted to do lots of stuff together, and my heart melts.

I’d been nervous about how four weeks of possible silence from my son might feel, but this — this information overload that said too much and too little — was far, far worse. And then, one day, my son showed up on the blog. He was standing in some kind of woodworking shed, and he was holding a saw.

At least I knew he was there. He hadn’t been lost in the wilderness when the camp bus drove off a cliff outside of Boston. But was he … happy? And should an 8-year-old really be holding a saw?

Even more confusing, I was allowed to e-mail him daily, but campers were restricted to handwritten letters only. So every day I would sit down at the computer and try to figure out what to say to someone who had yet to communicate with me. Someone who hadn’t even bothered to be sure to get his picture taken while smiling and holding a non-lethal tool so that I’d know he was okay. At first my e-mails were just upbeat reports on my day, and speculation on his. We decided to repaint the living room, I wrote. It’ll look different when you come home. Are you learning to use a saw?

But over time, as the days passed and no letters arrived, I sensed that my e-mails to him were becoming less like e-mails you might write to your 8-year-old child and more like journal entries I didn’t expect anyone to read. I watched the sun set last night, I typed into the Email Your Camper form on the camp Web site. It made me realize how infrequently I get to actually see a sunset, and how when you’re watching a perfect one it makes the whole world quiet for a moment. I stopped short of speculating on the meaning of life, and pressed send.

And then, three weeks into camp, a letter arrived. He’d forgotten to write our names on the front, or maybe I’d forgotten to tell him to do so. He’d never addressed a letter before. The entire address was crammed into the upper left corner of the envelope, which is a logical place to begin writing something on any piece of paper that isn’t an envelope.

Dear Mama and Dad, read the letter. Camp is awesome. My bed is near a window. Love, Me.

And with that, my fears disappeared. The angst and gnawing worry that the text and the blogs and the pictures had spawned, the images in my mind’s eye of my son curled up in a ball, too miserable to put pen to paper, vanished. It took only a single letter to let me know the one thing technology couldn’t. In the end, three weeks of silence and two handwritten lines gave me all the information I needed. My son was happy. And too busy to bother writing.