Tag Archives: camp

How to make friends, part 2

Read part 1 here….

We got to camp with a lot of time to spare before the opening ceremonies. Taz brought his own basketball, giving him an even better chance at meeting kids since the ball situation at camp proved to be limited at times. He spent his free time shooting hoops beside another kid, but they didn’t really talk with each other. In fact, there were more kids hanging out on their own than there were groups, many of them cautiously moving around everyone else as they tried to see where they fit in. A lot of parents were still there, and the kids kind of hung back with the faces they knew as they sought out something familiar among the weird and unknown. Taz did the same, though he purposely spent more time on the courts than with me to assert his independence.

Opening ceremonies came and I headed down with the rest of the camp. I saw Taz briefly but never quite saw where he sat until the ceremony was halfway over. He sat by himself as far away as the rest of the group as he could, only getting up when his name was called as they lined up in tribes. I silently prayed that a friend would manifest himself into this group he had just been placed in, and then let it go to fate.

My daughter called out the names for her own tribe one by one. She named off a new kid I had noticed earlier, “Ben”, and he left his dad to come forward. Something caught under his shoe however, and he tipped forward into a rolling fall in front of the whole camp. He appeared to brush it off, but you could tell he was shaken. It was definitely apparent when the poor kid was seen moments later with his dad, trying his hardest not to cry and failing miserably. I caught up with DQ a little while later and we both discussed a plan on how to help both Ben and Taz get to know each other to help ease some of the inevitable homesickness if nothing were done.

Tribe meetings ended, and Taz had found a familiar face in the dining hall. It was a kid who went to his school who he didn’t really get along with. But being that both of them didn’t have any friends here, they were suddenly the best of friends with each other. They were playing Foosball on one of the tables, trying to figure out how to play without a ball since they couldn’t find one. For now, they were settling with a pine cone. I could see Ben circling the table like a vulture, obviously interested in what they were doing, but totally unsure how to step in. To top it off, the tears hadn’t quite left his demeanor, and he was fighting them off as best as he could. This meant he was holding his t-shirt up over his face to hide the fact that he was on the verge of tears, even though his red-rimmed eyes were giving him away.

“Taz,” I said, beckoning him at an opportune moment, “see that kid over there?” I asked him. “He’s having a really hard time right now and doesn’t know anyone.” I explained what had happened at opening ceremonies after Taz had left, and Taz made a noise of sympathy. “I think he needs a friend just as bad as you did. Do you think you can ask him to join you?” Taz gave me a pained look.

“I don’t know, Mom,” he said. “What if I did it later tonight?”

“It will be too late,” I said. “I’m afraid he’s going to try and go home.” Taz gave me a half-hearted promise that he’d try, and then went back to the table to play.

“I got a ball, so I get first dibs at playing,” another kid said, coming up to Taz and his school friend. Both boys made groans of how unfair that was, but let him take over on one of the sides of the table. Meanwhile, Ben was getting a little braver and coming closer to the table. He finally made a bold move and just sat right next to where they were playing Foosball. Taz glanced over and saw the new kid.

“I got it,” Taz said suddenly. “You and you are a team,” he said as he pointed at the new kid and his school friend. “And me and him will be a team,” pointing at the kid with the ball.

And just like that, they became a group of four friends.

I couldn’t stick around at camp. My limited vacation time dictated that I would be working at my job this week rather than my usual week off chaperoning at camp. But before I left, I saw that Taz’ group was strong in their bond, and appeared to be growing as more and more kids got to know each other. Taz wouldn’t be alone this year, and several more kids would come home to their parents with stories of the new friends they had made in such a short time. In fact, groups were forming all over camp, and the faces of strangers were now starting to look a lot more like friends.

The unfamiliar can be scary – whether you’re 11 years old, 34 years old, 48 years old, or whatever age you are. And when you’re alone in a sea of strangers, it’s hard not to feel totally alone in your predicament as well. But really, all anyone wants is a sense of familiarity when surrounded by the unknown. Sometimes all it takes is one kind gesture for the unknown to become something a little friendlier.

And sometimes, we have to make that first step.

A shorter version of this two-part story will publish in the Press Democrat on July 27.

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How to make friends, part 1

Last year when Taz went to camp, he spent the whole entire time hanging out with a 6-year old instead of 10-year olds like him. It had been an awkward year for him already, having started the school year at a new school, and then finishing it back up at his old school because the first school was too rough on him. It was a learning experience for all of us, and we were lucky to have ended it on a good note. But the whole ordeal took a toll on his self-esteem, and suddenly my outgoing guy who was generally well-liked at school was a little less sure of himself and totally out of his element when it came to meeting new people.

So this year, I was intent that things would be different.

DQ was in my corner on this project of ours to condition Taz into making friends and not being alone the whole week. She began keeping an eye out for all her friends younger brothers, learning their names and ages as well as judging their temperament to see if they might be someone Taz might like to hang out with. I began talking with Taz about it, encouraging him about how to handle situations and hang out with kids his own age this year. If Taz had been 13 or 14 while I talked with him about making new friends, he would have shrugged me off and told me to stay out of his business. But one of the coolest things about 11-year olds is how open they are generally to new ideas and suggestions, and even to mothers and sisters butting into his life.

Camp came and I drove Taz up that morning. DQ was already there since she’s on teen staff, so it was just the two of us. The past week we had gone through our fair share of turmoil as he spaced on all the things he was supposed to do in favor of playing videogames all day long. As we drove, the discussion we had about the abuse of his free time turned into a fullblown argument – me at my wits end, and him feeling totally unheard. We drove in silence for another 10 minutes before it clicked what was going on.

“You want to know what I think?” I asked him. He turned slightly towards me, but kept his head ducked down so he didn’t have to look at me. “I might be wrong, but my guess is that you’ve been playing a lot of videogames to avoid some of the stuff that’s really going on, huh?” He seemed a little more interested in what I had to say, this time looking at me to hear more.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, you’re on the videogames all day because it’s a way to keep in touch with your friends, right? It’s so you don’t really have to say goodbye.” This past school year was his last at the Santa Rosa schools, as he would be attending school in Petaluma in the fall. In the process, he was leaving behind all his friends, and many of them he probably would never see again.

I glanced over at Taz as he quickly swiped away at his eyes. He nodded yes.

“And this week you’re going to camp and are going to be in a new situation with new people, and that’s kind of scary, isn’t it?”

“I’m really nervous,” he admitted. “I mean, I want to make friends. But what if no one likes me?” With the root of the problem facing us, the fight was suddenly forgotten. I didn’t have an answer for him. All I could do was reassure him that his sister would never let that happen, and that I was sure he would come away from the week with a friend. But the honest truth was, how was I to know how it would turn out?

To be continued….

"Can I come home?"

At 10 years old, he had been on many sleepovers without me there to keep watch over him. And he just got back from a week with his dad and never even called me once while he was gone. So it wasn’t like he didn’t know how to be away from me. But still, camp was different. It’s easier for a kid to get lost in the shuffle, being surrounded by so many other campers. I didn’t worry about whether he would mind the rules. It was pretty much guaranteed the pool would be his bathtub, and gunk would have to be chiseled off his teeth when I picked him up at the end of the week. I didn’t even stress about whether he would eat enough, as my boy is not one to skip a meal. But I did worry if he would make friends, or talk to anyone during the day. While the Taz has many friends at school, the awkward age he’s at now makes it difficult to leave his self-consciousness and meet someone new.

With so many kids around, it’s easy to find a friend. But it’s also easy to not say a word throughout the day, and spend time sitting all alone at meals.

I visited camp mid-week to help out and, yes, because I knew I’d miss the kids too much not to. Both of them were happy to see me, even my teen, DQ. But it was the Taz whose face lit up when he caught sight of me after three days away. Just moments before, his face held no emotion as he walked without energy towards the dining area for lunch. But when I called his name, he immediately lit up at the sound of something familiar, searching to find my face. And his energy returned as he ran up the steps to greet me.

He promised me he had made a bunch of friends. He named them off one by one when I asked, and I was pleased to know he was doing so well. But when I glanced over to him as I ate, I was dismayed to find that he was sitting alone. He sat near me after lunch to show me the letters he received from home, and I encouraged him to go play with some boys at the basketball court.

“I don’t know them,” he said shyly. “And they probably won’t play with me.”

This wasn’t like the Taz at home. Before we had even moved in with Mr. W, he had made good friends with the kids down the street. At school he seemed to have plenty of friends. But here? His confidence was gone and he was all alone. While he still went off on his own while I was there at camp, I saw he was happiest when he knew I was around. We played ping pong together, and then I watched him jump off the diving board at the pool.

And at least a dozen times, he asked if he could just come home with me when it was time to go.

I refused, of course. He only had two days left, and this was good for him. It was good for me too. I needed to not run to his side every time I felt he was uncomfortable. I really wanted to introduce him to some kids, find a way they could all play together, and create some friendships for him so I could leave knowing he was having a good time. But that wasn’t my job, it was his. And so I stayed out of it.

It was late in the afternoon when the radio in the dining hall was turned on as loud as the teens could make it without blasting us out of the forest. Without direction, kids made their way to the tables and stomped their feet in time with the beat. The music surrounded all of us. A group of girls led a line dance on several of the tables, dancing country to the hip-hop groove. On another table, a group of kids jumped and laughed. And in the back, my son was in the center of a bunch of kids, showing off his dance moves effortlessly. Dancing was something he loved to do, and would do without abandon. And darned if my kid isn’t a brilliant dancer! Yet, he was neither center of attention or totally ignored. Instead, he was one of the crowd, a part of this movement and energy that invited more and more to join in. And soon almost the whole camp was there, dancing away in a spontaneous dance party until it really was time to turn the music off and get ready for dinner.

“Can I come home with you?” the Taz asked me one more time that evening. It was mere minutes before campfire was over. The camp was going to go on a night hike. I was going to drive back down the hill and go home. I smiled at him and shook my head no.

“You’ll be fine,” I told him, kissing his head as I got ready to leave.

And I knew that he would. He might not be having the same experience as I did. He might be stuck a bit in his awkwardness. There would be times when he would be alone, and that would feel uncomfortable. Heck, it’s uncomfortable for all of us – from being a self-conscious tween to an insecure adult. But there would also be times when everyone banded together and he would feel like he belonged.

And who was I to take that away from him?

This awkwardness, it will pass. He’ll survive it. After all, it’s just a part of growing up. And in all this, I think I’m growing up too.

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh

The path to campfire

The Taz stared out at me from the back of the bus, his hand frozen in mid-wave, and his eyes pleading with me to stop the bus. I never did, and just waved until he was finally out of sight.

Only moments before, he had been hugging me ferociously, making the moment last as long as he could until the bus driver told him he needed to get on. He pulled away and I could see tears in his eyes that he was only half heartedly trying to keep under wraps. He was on his way to camp, his first year without me. I had decided to take a year off of being an adult chaperone, and was seriously second guessing my decision as I said goodbye to my second child. Not for his sake, mind you, but for mine. I was jealous that they were about to go to one of my favorite places on earth without me. And besides, the experience of being away from me was good for both of them. My faithfully independent DQ was already at camp, enjoying her first year on the teen staff, and had done a terrible job hiding her glee that I wouldn’t be there. But the Taz was a different story, and this was not his favorite idea. However, I knew it would do the Taz some good to gather his camp identity without his mom there.

And, fine. I really was worried how the Taz would do if I wasn’t there.

It was only two years ago that I made the Taz graduate from sleeping in Girls’ Camp with me and move his bunk over to the boys’ side. He was vehemently against it. If it were up to him, I do believe that the Taz would have been perfectly ok sleeping next to me until he was 15. But at 8 years old, I couldn’t risk this becoming a permanent arrangement. So I helped him set up his bunk near one of the male chaperones I knew, and let him know I’d see him every day when he wasn’t sleeping. And when evening came, I kissed him goodnight, made him promise to brush his teeth, and then watched as he disappeared into the camp I was not allowed to enter.

Seeing him disappear wistfully behind the fence of the Boys’ Camp was much like letting him enter the public Men’s Bathroom all on his own for the first time. I don’t care how old the kid is, you still feel like a bad mom that very first time you let them enter a room full of strangers without you there to protect them.

But this was not a camp of strangers. Many of the boys on that side of camp were kids I had seen grow from my son’s age to the teenagers they had become. And they were all great kids. But still, this was my youngest, a boy who was unashamed by his need to have me close. And while I was taking the steps to give him a touch of independence, the experience was hard on both of us.  And he spent the whole week wishing he could be with me instead of in some strange camp all on his own.

But he survived.  And the next year, there wasn’t even a question where he would be bunking.

And now, in his 10th year of life, we were experiencing another hard, yet necesary, step towards independence. I was wearing sunglasses when he hugged me tight, so he couldn’t see the tears in my eyes when I realized he was fighting his own from spilling down his cheeks. ‘Don’t let him see you cry,’ I willed myself, knowing it would do him no favors. I also silently begged him not to cry either.

‘Dude, no one’s going to want to be friends with a crybaby.’

But I didn’t say it out loud. Instead, I cheerfully told him he would be fine, and that I loved him. He slumped onto the bus and made his way towards the back. And he pulled his window down so he could peek over the top of the window while waving goodbye. But he was forced to sit down when the bus driver ordered that everyone be seated so they could be on their way. And as the bus pulled away, he turned to look out the back and watch me as they departed. I kept reminding myself this was good for him. It was. He needed time away from me. He would be fine….

And the bus disappeared around the corner.

And in that moment, I gave a silent prayer that he would be ok without me there. Simultaneously, I wondered what the heck I was going to do with myself while both of my kids were gone, knowing all my identity was wrapped up in being their mom. And I realized that the Taz and me, we weren’t that much different.

So I added myself to that prayer of independence, that I would be ok too.

Being my kid’s embarrassment

As a parent, you will only be cool to your kids for so long. And when the tides change (and they will) you will become the most embarrassing creature on the face of the planet.

The kids and I went to camp together this past week. And in this week I got to see a different side of them, especially my daughter. It’s one thing to carry on a relationship with my daughter in our home. She is polite and helpful, the one I can rely on. She is rarely disrespectful, and is extremely trustworthy. While I hold fast that a parent should be just that to their kids – more a parent than a friend – I like to think that my daughter and I do share a special bond that does allow us to be friends as well. But in the week surrounded by more than a hundred kids her own age, she changed. She stopped wearing the cuter clothes she had (in my opinion) and started hiding under a straight-billed hat and baggy boys clothing. She was hanging out with mostly boys, losing anything girlish about her as she took on a tough posterior. She was the center of attention in her group. And I was suddenly placed in a role that I hadn’t been accustomed to.

I was an embarrassment to her.

We’ve been doing this for years, the family camp experience. So my presence at camp as a chaperone was nothing new. But as a preteen, my daughter wordlessly let me know that just the mere suggestion of my existence was mortifying. Anytime I looked at her, snapped a photo in her direction, or even hinted in a conversation that we might be related, I was met with a roll of the eyes, a glare, or worst of all, an actual reaming from my daughter to leave her alone.

Being young when I had my daughter, I really thought I was immune to this kind of treatment. I thought that I’d be the cool mom, the one that all her friends would wish was their mom. I thought we’d be bosom buddies – the mom and daughter team that would try on each other’s clothes, gab about boys, make kissy face photos together, share heart-to-heart talks every night, and have each other’s backs. I thought for sure that I would be way cooler than my own mother, who was a whole 2 years older when she had me than I was when I had my daughter, and embarrassed the holy heck out of me.

A little note about my mother. She got great pleasure out of embarrassing my sisters and me. HUGE pleasure. The only explanation that I have for being forced to wear handmade dresses in 6th grade was that my mom was sadistic. She must have been wildly amused by the torment I received from all my classmates in their cute pegged jeans and white Keds. And me? All I could do was slink away in my patchwork dress with the wide bow in back, sporting my ugly brown hiking shoes so that I could run on the playground while looking pretty. My mother also memorized every single bar song that exists. She would break into song about “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” at random times of the day, ignoring our pleas to keep it on the downlow. Same goes for the Monty Python “Lumberjack” song, and a certain song from the Dick Van Dyke show:

“I’m in love, I’m in love with Attila the Hun! Attila the Hun! Attila the Hun! He’ll pillage the village and kill everyone. Attila’s the one, for me!”

And because of our Italian heritage, my mother had my preteen sister in tears when she told her this joke: “How do you tell who the bride is at an Italian wedding? She’s the one with French braided armpit hair.”

Yes. My mom was a hoot. Oh, and my sister’s getting married next year, and it’s supposed to be classy. Anyone know any fancier braids than the French braid?

At any rate, I thought for sure that I had conquered the mom-barrassment by being young, cool, and hip. Obviously, I was wrong. And apparently she’d have everyone believe that she sprouted out of the ground rather than coming from someone as repulsive as her mother. Things finally came to a head at camp when I was taking a picture of all those around her to gather photos for the whole camp, and then pointed the camera at her.

“Would you get that thing out of my face???” she demanded, hiding behind a scowl as I snapped photos. “God, you’re so embarrassing!” And then she turned away from me, ignoring me as she gabbed with her friends – doing her best to pretend that I didn’t even exist. I let it go in that moment, but my feelings were hurt. Gone was my daughter who still shared most of the contents of her heart with me at home. And here was this preteen girl who was suddenly dressing strangely to fit in with all her friends and wishing me away as furiously as she could. I decided it best to not call her out and embarrass her anymore, but that evening I pulled her aside, away from her friends, for a chat.

“You need to accept the fact that I’m your mom, and I’m here,” I told her.

“I am!” she protested.

“No, you’re not. You’re totally mortified by my existence. And I’ll have you know, you’re the only one. No one else here cares that your mom is here, only you.”

“But I’m not doing anything!” she insisted.

“But you are. You are acting like everything I say or do is totally stupid and mortifying when I have done my best to leave you alone this whole week. And it’s hurting my feelings.”

In that moment she seemed to actually be listening, and the hard look on her face softened some.

“If you want, I’ll just pretend that you’re not my daughter. I’ll continue the week as if I’m just a chaperone and we’re not even related. It wouldn’t be my favorite thing to do, but it sure beats what’s going on right now,” I told her.

“No, I don’t want you to do that,” she said.

“Well, how about this. You treat me a little bit nicer, and I’ll do my best to not do anything to embarrass you.”

She nodded.

“But know this,” I continued. “I’m taking pictures of all the campers here, you included. I won’t go crazy, but at least smile for a couple of them?”

She nodded again, and actually leaned in at the same time as I did for the kind of hug you give after a disagreement, letting herself be wrapped up in my arms just like she did when she was younger and I was her whole world.

Amazingly enough, the talk we had did change things. She made a point to smile at me as she stood in line waiting for her lunch the next day. And she came over to where I was sitting to share what family had written her in letters to camp. And she even made friends with some girls and spent just as much time dressing like a girl and being sweetness and spice, as she did wearing her hat and beating up her guy friends. And true to my word, I left her alone as much as possible, letting her have fun without her mom watching her every move. At least, I hope I did.

While this isn’t the first (or the last) time she’s been averse to my presence, this week taught me several new things. First, communication really can help break down the walls that exist between parents and their children. Second, I’m not as cool as I thought I was. And last, I need to brush up on my bar songs – because if she’s going to be embarrassed by me anyway, I might as well have fun with it.