I don’t think of myself as a helicopter mom. Or at least, I didn’t until today. And I guess the diagnosis is coming at the right time, because I’ve found the antidote to helicoptering.
It’s called sleep-away camp.
Yes, I just left my 9-yr-old at camp for a month. And every hour that we drive further away, the lump in my throat is growing. No phone calls are allowed. No texts, no computers, no iPads or iTouch or any other form of digital back-and-forth. Just old-fashioned letters and self-reliance.
When we first arrived at camp, after a four-day terrific road trip, K was exuberant. She discovered that her two best buddies from last year are not only in her same cabin – they are in her same chalet (it’s like a bedroom with 6 or 7 girls). Ohh. the squeals, the hugs, the lovefest of tween girls jumping up and down in delight!!!
A few minutes later, we learned that K’s cousin M is also in the very same chalet. Last year, M went to camp a different session than K, so she did not yet know the girls with whom K was so joyfully reuniting.
Of course, as an anti-bullying author, I immediately began to worry. Would K and her old friends exclude M? My concern grew as K and the two other girls launched into a photo session. I pulled K outside and talked to her about including M. She listened. She promised to be aware.
We went back inside. K’s two old friends decided to go swimming, but M preferred to stay in the cabin. K said she would stay with M. The other two bounded out, giggling and chatting.
And within minutes, I was worried afresh—would K lose her closeness with her old friends because I had made her feel that she could not leave her cousin’s side? Would she end up feeling excluded?
Why couldn't I just chill out??? I asked the kid to look out for her cousin. Now instead of being glad that she listened, I was worried about something new. I heard the distant chopping of a helicopter coming closer. Say it isn't so!
We said our goodbyes and starting walking to our car. I felt unsettled and anxious about leaving Katie alone to navigate a potentially tricky social situation. I agonized – had I done the right thing by reminding K not to be exclusive? Or had I placed a burden of too much responsibility on K’s shoulders and inhibited her chance to figure it all out on her own?
It dawned on me – I have spent so much time studying bullying and social conflict that I am waaayyyy overanalyzing my poor daughter’s social situations. I was aware that I should just let it be. But I couldn’t. I turned around and ran back to talk with K once more. “It’s okay to go off and do stuff with your old friends,” I reassured her. “All I want is for you to make M feel welcome too.”
She hugged me goodbye and went back to play happily with M. I watched them for a minute. M was having a grand time, as was K. They were fine. They would figure it out. I left.
I talked it over with Andrew as we drove. He commented, “This is exactly the type of situation that she will be facing all her life – balancing friendships and navigating social clues. And now she will get to manage it without us there. It’s good practice.”
God, I love that man.
The truth is, K desperately needs time to figure the hard stuff out on her own. I hope she will make decent choices, at least more often than not. I can’t protect her from the discomforts of growing up, and if I try, then she will be ill-prepared to deal with all the complexities of peer relationships.
“Think how much better prepared she will be for college,” Andrew said, “now that she will have the experience of going away from home for an extended period of time and not having us there to help her with problems." Yes, he is already thinking about how our 9-yr-old will fare at college!
"I don't care if she is the most skilled archer or the best sailor at camp," I told Andrew. "If a group of girls is headed to dinner and one kid is left alone sitting on her bed, all I care about is whether my daughter will be the one to notice and say to the kid, 'hey, do you want to walk with us?' But she has to become that person on her own."
We drove on for a while, and after an hour, I checked in through private message with a friend of mine who was still settling her daughter in at the camp (the mother of one of the two old pals in K’s chalet).
She messaged me back. K was now crying a little and feeling sad, but trying to hold it together. K’s cousin M and her two old friends were all snuggled together with K on the bunk, reassuring her that it would be okay. The counselor was also offering comfort, and the girls were going to start on a project.
Well, on the good side, M, K and the other two were easily turning from a threesome into a foursome. So much for my worries there!
But on the bad side, MY BABY WAS SAD. Aaaaghhhh.
Of course I began to tear up and stress to Andrew that a month is too long and we know she has a history of separation anxiety and it's harder for adopted kids and what will she do without me there to comfort her and I can’t even check in on her or call her or talk to her counselors and the world is ending.
Under Andrew’s patient coaching, I repeated my own oh-so-wise words to myself:
"K will be fine. She will learn her own resilience and her ability to work through uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way. She will be homesick for the first few days, and then she will have an amazing time, just like last year (although she only went for two weeks). She has nurturing staff and friends surrounding her. She has plenty of coping skills, because we made a plan for dealing with homesickness ahead of time, and she has learned how to deal with sadness when she misses her birth family. She is safe and she will feel tremendous independence and pride at the end of this month away."
We are now five hours away from our big girl, and we have stopped for the night at a hotel. Our two younger girls are asleep, their bellies full of chocolate chip pancakes. A balloon man was at the restaurant and asked my 6-yr-old if she would like a flower or a penguin. She requested a sword, as did the 3-yr-old, and they had a prolonged squeaky sword fight across their car seats as we drove and drove. Tomorrow we drive another five hours, and we will finally arrive home.
And then the wait begins for the first letter. You know, the one where I try not to analyze every word and what she doesn’t say and what she does say and the slant of her handwriting and the color of her ink.
The antidote to helicoptering? Sending your 9-yr-old to sleepaway camp. Because you realize that you can’t fix anything for a kid who is ten hours away with no phone or computer. And you know what? That just might be the best fix of all.
Portrait of an Adoption is written by Carrie Goldman, the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.
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