This summer, our boys went to camp for the first time.
When I say "camp," what I mean is that they spent a week swimming, running, singing and carving sticks into spears in the Canadian wilderness from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the exception of Thursday, when they had a one-night campfire and "sleepover." To say they both loved it would be an understatement. They arrived home each day to their grandmother's house in Creemore, Ont., filthy, moderately sunburned, with their bathing suits on backward, clamouring to go back. From the first day, Freddy, who is now 8, begged to stay over every night with the rest of the sleep-away campers.
My husband had to be eased into the idea of summer camp (as an English man, he is understandably suspicious of any institution that cheerily promises to instill "spirit and character" into one's children in exchange for boarding fees).
But by the end of the week, he was a convert. It helped, of course, that the camp gave us access that would have been completely unheard of in my day as a camper. They let us wander around the grounds after drop-off, peeking in the cabins and checking out the dining-hall menu. We met all the counsellors and shook their sweaty 16-year-old hands. And during the week, they e-mailed us several photos of the boys, including a particularly sweet one of James being serenaded around the flagpole on his birthday.
But compared with many camps, this was nothing.
In addition to disclosing food allergies and emergency-contact numbers, a regular part of summer-camp registration today is signing the obligatory child-photo waiver. One girlfriend of mine who last summer sent her son to two weeks of sleep-away camp for the first time confessed that she had become unhealthily addicted to the camp's picture gallery and spent time out from her busy job each day logging on to the private server and squinting over group photos to see how often her kid popped up in the group photos, learning a basic d-stroke or making a lumpy pottery mug.
Add to the daily updated galleries the camp's secure, password-protected server CampMinder, the Facebook page updates, Twitter feed, private Instagram account and nightly peppy e-mail blasts from the camp director detailing the day's activities and events, and my girlfriend found herself suddenly more in touch with her son's daily life than she had been during the school year.
She was understandably divided about this, since one of the main benefits of camp (in addition to initiating generations of middle-class Canadian children into the cultish half-feral, half-militaristic ways of institutionalized wilderness survival) is to give exhausted parents a much-needed summer break.
"Despite myself, I keep checking all these channels ['refresh,' 'refresh'] for pictures of my kid, blowing up each image 400 times to see if the little man in the baseball cap is him or some other nine-year-old kid," she confessed. "But I wish I didn't have access to all that information. Holy fishbowl."
Most of the bigger camps in Canada now have social-media directors who spend their days photographing, updating and managing the camp's daily activities and refining the online marketing strategy with a regular churn of inspirational quotes and "visual memories."
In addition to helping summer camps boost enrolment numbers and establish a brand and legacy, this can fuel some unhealthy parental anxiety. A couple of summers back, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about one American mom who made a pact with her young son that he would give a thumbs up in every group photo to indicate to her that he was having a good time. She subsequently woke each morning at 3 a.m. to check the camp website and assuage her worst fears.
Other parents I know actually complete the circle of social media by taking to Facebook to publicly share their anxieties over their kids' camp photo appearances. "After days of checking the camp gallery this picture of Lily finally appeared," one mother friend recently worried on my feed recently. "Does it look like she's having fun to you?"
And then, a couple of days later, after the camp posted photos of her daughter smiling and laughing: "Now this is more like it!"
The supreme irony of my generation stalking our children at summer camp through social media is that part of the reason we send them into the woods in the first place is to ensure that little Rufus and Tallulah have at least a couple of weeks each year that are "screen-free," in which they are forced to communicate with their friends and family via spoken language or – weirder still – handwritten letters posted in the mail.
Most summer camps have strict "technology detox" policies for kids that are enormously alluring for parents concerned about Pokemon-addicted preteens and their dopamine-addled brains. But this anti-tech, pro-analogue DIY philosophy is nothing new. Back when I was at camp in the late eighties, we weren't even allowed to take books on canoe trips (only blank writing journals) because any form of outside entertainment was thought to interfere with our sacred ability to commune with nature.
Today, summer camp still offers an escape for children, but not for most parents. That's a shame since the benefits of temporarily disconnecting are not age-specific, especially for my generation of helicopter-prone-attachment moms and dads. We fret about our kids being unable to detach and lose themselves in the responsibility-free bliss of summer, but it turns out, as usual, we are the guilty ones in the end.