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Sleep-Away Camp is My Blind Spot

I don’t let my kids go to sleep-away camp.

They’ve asked.

I’ve said no.

They asked why.

I explained that it’s too expensive, that I want to spend the summer with them, that the thought of them being away for weeks is selfishly unbearable to me, and all those reasons are true.

But they’re not the whole reason that I won’t send my kids to sleep-away camp.

I never sent my kids to sleep-away camp because I had an awful, terrible, no-good, very bad experience there when I was ten years old.

My parents and I had just arrived to New York from the Soviet Union, it was May and my parents needed to find a place for me, fast. They had things to do, jobs to get, an apartment to rent, a life to start, and having a ten year old underfoot wasn’t doing anyone any favors. Besides, they heard that sleep away camp was the way to go in America, and when in Rome do like the Romans and all that.

And so off I went. It was a camp in upstate New York, in a place that I can imagine being described as serene and wholesome and it was all those things. Except I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

To this day, when I am in my mid-40s, I have yet to experience such loneliness and alienation that I felt there. I’d been in American a little under six weeks by the time that I was shipped off to camp, and I didn’t know American customs. I didn’t know that you are not supposed to wear the same t-shirt day-after-day, even though it was clean, even though it had Donny and Marie on it, smiling to show that they were friendly on it.

The other kids didn’t so much tease me as avoided me. They treated me as though I were completely foreign, which in their defense, I was. I spoke limited English, smiled absolutely never (Russians don’t smile without a good reason, unlike Americans who, like Donny and Marie, smiled often, and unprompted.) To make matters more awkward, I immediately got poison ivy which didn’t enhance my already freckled complexion.

I was lonely. I was miserable. I wanted to go home.
When I did come home after two weeks, I vowed never to go back. This wasn’t good news for my parents who already paid for another two week stint at the end of the summer. But I would not budge. I knew what misery was and I didn’t want any more of it.

And that feeling hardened. It hardened into a strong bias that I didn’t want my children to go to summer camp where they would be lonely and away from me. I made a decision not to send my children to sleep-away camp.

As I write these words I can hear the criticism. “It’s not your childhood, it’s theirs” and “Their experiences can’t possibly be the same as yours” and “You’re denying your children a wonderful rite of passage.”

I can’t argue with any of that.

I know that because of my own issues I have deprived my children of an experience that so many children enjoy every summer. I was not able to overcome my summer camp misery to let them partake in it. That is my parenting blind spot and I admit to it freely.

But I’m not going to be able to push past it.

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