• Wed. Nov 30th, 2022

Why is coming back to real life after camp so difficult?

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Aug 26, 2022

As I write this, my children (9, 11 and 13) have all just returned from various camps and my God I did NOT send them back like that. They are SO tired. And grumpy. And sensitive. And swear. They are unusually unpleasant, especially the 11-year-old boy.

Let me give you an example, from my 11 year old son. We both notice the forgotten piece of paper at the same time. At first my darling doesn’t realize that I’m watching him consider the little nothing – how he takes his time, rolling slowly and squeezing and rolling again. Then he senses me watching him, and his actions go from distracted to calculated. He spends long moments painstakingly crumpling the paper into the smallest piece possible. Then, with studied nonchalance, a swift blow sends the tiny piece off the table and away.

It’s deliberate. He KNOWS this is going to trigger me. A smile plays on the side of his mouth as he waits for my reaction. Although knowing better, I bite. “Who do you think is going to pick this up?” I ask, irritated but still calm.

Her shrug annoys me and rather than let it go, I continue, “Or are you okay assuming that someone, not you, will eventually make it?”

What’s new about this interaction compared to similar ones from the previous week is that the action itself isn’t satisfying enough. He takes the opportunity now to refuse to pick it up. “It’s not mine,” he states (truthfully, infuriatingly). It’s the classic middle school attitude and, I swear, it wouldn’t have happened before camp.

As a family devoted to the outdoors, camps have always been a requirement in my household. And yet I forgot how awful it is when the kids come back for the first time. This is because in the past I used to go with them. This year, all three left on their own, and I was fresh and awake enough to feel their eventful re-entry into the house full force.

Everything I ask them to do these first few days is like pulling teeth. Actually worse than pulling teeth because as far as I know they don’t normally try to talk the dentist out of doing their job. I find myself insisting that yes, we have to unpack the dirty clothes; a typical non-issue, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, has recently turned into a pointing-and-groaning mess.

I boldly suggest that the wet tent absolutely cannot spend another night in its stuff sack, not even one. Foot drags ensue. A few days later, my son wonders why he should fold up my tent (which HE used). “What harm does it, really, spread out in the living room drying off?” he asked, somewhere between sincere and passively aggressive. It’s not so much the first steps of these moments that bother me, but their frequency and the second and third rejections that follow.

I’ve been a middle school teacher since the 90s, way longer than my tweens have been alive. I know kids are generally more cooperative and nicer to everyone than they are at home. I know they’re so awful right now because for a whole week in residence they’ve been on their best behavior and kept all the needs, all the questions, all the uncertainties inside. I even know that I should be flattered and comforted by the fact that I am always their “safe” person, where they try out new vocabulary and new behaviors.

Sometimes, however, it’s not so easy to apply what I know professionally to my own children.

I have to consciously calm down and take a moment to reflect: my son has been out with mostly older peers for a week – without a ton of sleep. I breathe and remember that he’s driving me crazy right now is a line between sleep deprivation and actual personality traits. That while it may seem difficult, especially in hot times when everyone is feeling fired up and surly, most of the acting out is really only temporary. And I can choose to overreact and alienate myself, or I can calmly provide them with comfortable places to sleep.

These relatively minor challenges and setbacks are a way for them to experience independence. They are also an opportunity to discuss with our children how certain words or ways of being are suitable for certain people (such as peers) but are not welcome with everyone in all situations, for example at the table. . And that you always have to keep in mind the situation and what is appropriate at the moment.

These are developmentally (and housekeeping!) specific, naturally, but I’m here to tell you that if your child is brave enough to act in front of you, that’s a GOOD sign! It means that they are ready to share with you the self that they are trying to discover, and you are always part of the process. Worry instead when they have nothing to say to you — or worse, to “show” you their absence.

Either way, good luck getting them to flip through the paper.

Jackie Carroll is a teacher and mother of five from SD, WA, and just over a decade from Belgium. She lives on the west coast of Finland.