Is Camp the Best Way For a Parent to Spend the Summer?

MOM IRL

Is Camp the Best Way For a Parent to Spend the Summer?

Many helicopter parents find it cruel to send their kids away for eight weeks. Here our straight-talking columnist explains why it's cruel not to.

Written By Jill Kargman
Illustration Rob Wilson

In one of my favorite YouTube gems, "Sleep Away Camp," two animated animal moms — one Gentile, one Jew — discuss their children’s summer plans. The Jewish mom is incessantly refreshing her son’s summer camp website searching for pictures of him to get a glimpse into his Maine life during his weeks away. The WASPy mom doesn’t get the whole thing, and this crudely animated short is a hilarious guffaw-out-loud study in contrasts along this cultural line.

As a 1980s camper, those summers away helped define who I was. I got to spread my wings socially, try new sports to be shitty at and primp for socials with a nearby boys’ camp using my yellow ConAir hairdryer, despite humidity that rendered my Jewfro pube-head into a facsimile of Roseanne Roseannadanna. I made friends from all over the country, sang songs by a campfire, paddled in a canoe and even slept under the stars. We didn’t have a country house. This is by no means impoverishment, but it felt like a rarity on the Upper East Side not to have a greenery escape hatch. I needed the woods and the lake of Camp Laurel to help cut and paste this pasty girl into what felt like the “real” world.

But many parents who I have encountered, both then and now, are horrified. The concept of shipping away their children seems insane. Many of my more WASPy friends could never send their kids away to camp, which is why lines in the dirt often seem to echo religious backgrounds. One can see the appeal of Goy Summer: staying home, going to sports group at the local country club and having family barbecues where the dress code is bomb-blast at Vineyard Vines; however, in the end, family tradition usually continues from one generation to the next.

In the YouTube cartoon, the WASPy mom asks, “Why would you spend all that money to send him away and then obsess over looking at pictures of him?” The Jewish mom replies, “I don’t know. What are your kids doing for the summer?”

“Nothing,” says the WASPy mom. “Playing with their friends. Swimming in the pool. Relaxing and maybe going on a few vacations.”

The Jewish mom replies, “I would never subject myself to that.”

"While it was semi-sad and weird when my youngest left along with his older sisters, something amazing and unexpected happened: Their departure put defibrillators on my marriage."

I laughed so hard because while that heat-filled languor sounds like a lovely period of idle relaxation, to many of us, it could easily morph into Nickelodeon marathons, junk-food fests and constant questions of “What are we doooooing tonight?” I like having the kids programmed and living in cabins; I feel like it’s part of their education. I would not be myself without the seven years I spent at camp. And yet, I totally get how it could feel so foreign and even creepy to ship off your kid with a huge trunk and seven-weeks worth of tacky, bedazzled clothes.

While it was semi-sad and weird when my youngest left along with his older sisters —and yes, I did obsess over the online photos — something amazing and unexpected happened: Their departure put defibrillators on my marriage.

During our Summer of Empty Nester Love, my husband and I rented a car in Milan and made our way down to the Amalfi coast on a road trip where every random town we stopped in for lunch had the best burrata ever. I felt alive and refreshed and weirdly not selfish because we knew the kids were having a blast, whereas I loathe leaving them when they are home. In the chill of January when all five of us are stuck in the Black Hole of Our Apartment for a Longish Weekend and all hell breaks loose, my husband and I have those bonding boyfriend-girlfriend memories to draw upon. Plus, we know we can look forward to next summer.

Our travel is only possible because we are unencumbered by a second home or summer-retreat tradition. On the last day of school, many of our friends are idling in loaded-up station wagons ready to vanish to the Hamptons, various islands or ramshackle-chic enclaves centered around a club, from Old Black Point to Prouts Neck or Dark Harbor, Maine. The kids have their run of these incestuous redoubts while the parents revel, play tennis and tan themselves into that Goyish shade of mahogany.

It sounds romantic, but this is literally my nightmare. I know because one summer I lived that existence. To escape the thermometer-bursting Manhattan heat, I spent two months at my parents’ house in Massachusetts with three kids under 5 years old. My husband flew up on the weekends and I practically shoved the children in his arms when he arrived. Like all those guys who ride the Crampton Shitney, I lived for the corkscrew at 5 p.m. to take the edge off the day. If Instagram is to be trusted as a societal mirror, I wasn’t alone. By September you’ll all be hurling if you see one more porch-perched rosé against a sunset, amirite? So consider giving your city slicker a break in the brambles and try camp! It simultaneously toughens them up and lightens your load. And while I miss my Karglings terribly, between their new skill sets, friends from all over and beaming smiles, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Jill Kargman is a New York-based writer, actress and television producer. Follow her on Instagram @jillkargman.