When my daughter Josie went to sleepaway camp for the first time, I was astonished by how much had changed since I went. Back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I think my parents had to sign one form, promising not to sue if I asphyxiated in a cloud of pre-Sadie-Hawkins-dance Love’s Baby Soft or sprained a wrist in an overly assertive collar-popping incident. They wrote a check (checks! how quaint!) and then I disappeared until visiting day, and that was how it was, and that was cool.
Summers are different today. The amount of documentation required to send a child to sleepaway camp rivals the stack my husband and I signed when we bought an apartment. The form that promises we won’t demean the camp on social media. The code of conduct form for kids and parents. The eight gazillion health forms. The bunkmate preference form. The activities form. The form acknowledging that we will fill out all the forms. The reward for all this is the promise that our kid will be well-supervised and well-cared-for.
And yet: The camp’s promise is not enough. And our kids’ letters are surely unreliable evidence, though we study them like runes. Does “send candy” mean he’s starving? What does she really mean when she writes “camp is fun”? We require empirical proof of non-stop fun-having, because said proof will justify the breathtaking parental expense of getting to have sex without fear of being walked in on.
Thus the raison d’etre of the camp photographer and videographer. They put up pictures and videos on the camp web site, showing happy kids at morning flag raising, doing sports, taking swim lessons, eating breakfast, going on field trips, all dressed up and sparkly for Shabbat or camp socials. Endless pictures. Endless videos, all using fancy pans and dissolves, all set to jaunty soundtracks. And oh how we parents watch and obsess.
Is my kid in a lot of pictures? How many? Is she enjoying or merely tolerating pottery? Does he seem popular? Has she gained or lost weight? How’s he performing during color war? Are today’s pictures up yet? Why not? Has a fellow camp mom emailed: “Your kid looks so cute in that tetherball picture today!” Has she emailed this before you’ve even seen the picture, thus indicating that she is an engaged and involved camp parent while you are a slacker, one who is probably having sex while her child is being hit in the head with a tetherball? Has a fellow camp dad FB’d you jocularly about your kid’s lack of prowess in balloon-shaving? What do the photos and videos reveal about you, your child, your parenting?
Click, click, click, click, click! Refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh!
A couple of years ago, on drop-off day, the camp director told us not to give our kid secret hand signals to throw like gang signs when they saw a photographer. Apparently some parents had pre-arranged codes with their kids—one upraised finger in a photo meant “I’m happy”; two fingers meant “Call the camp right now and make them make me happier.”
I had no hand signals, but I was still making myself crazy over analyzing the daily camp photo cache. The photos were more often a source of anxiety than of joy. So I made a decision. I’d force myself to look every three days instead of multiple times a day.
And lo and behold, I enjoyed the camp photos more! I skipped all the crowd pictures, because I’d only freak myself out looking for my spawn like Where’s Waldo. I stopped watching the videos, which always seemed to cause the spinning wheel of death and get hung around the 1:30-mark anyway. I convinced myself that the forced separation that camp provided between me and my children was good for both of us, and I should respect and cherish it.
And I do.
Now, with two kids, each at a different summer camp, attempting to keep up with their online media presence would leave me no time for cocktails and sex—which are the reasons I send my kids to camp in the first place.
Marjorie Ingall is a contributor to Tablet Magazine (the magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture) the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, and an NYC mom of two.