As is my wont, I started writing about summer camp.  In fact, I was going to tell you about the first time I went to camp, but this post went off on a tangent.  Enjoy. 

As the oldest child, I was the “test case” for all my parents’ best intentions.  This is not my opinion.  Both my mother and father have told me this on numerous occasions.  I was the first of their 3 children to hit the water at the Carlisle Family YMCA for “Diaper Dip.”  Diaper Dip was a 1970s ritual in which well-meaning parents tried to drown their infants at the local pool.  Despite the trauma, I grew up to love swimming – but my parents did not repeat Diaper Dip with my brother or sister.  My mother drug me along to her Girl Scout campouts – regardless my obvious gender differences with her troop.  And despite that early, awkward introduction to hiking and camping, I love both activities to this day.  I was also the first of their children to attend sleep-away camp.  More on that experience later. 

There has to be a first.  Without a first there is no second.  There is no progress.  This immutable law of nature does not make it any less difficult for the first born in any family – or their parents.  Of the many things I have learned in my 4 plus years of parenthood, I am most proud of my increased tolerance for screwing up.  I apologize to my oldest daughter on a weekly – if not daily – basis for all the instances of poor judgement I exhibit.  I want to share with you one such example. 

My 4 year-old daughter is very, very bright.  A trait that I am pleased to say she inherited from her mother.  She also got her good looks from her mother.  If you’re keeping score at home, she is 2 for 2.  Unfortunately, my eldest daughter inherited many of my personality flaws which notably include a ridiculous sense of humor (shared by no one else on the continent) and an irrepressible drive to say outrageous things.  I delight in both of these traits, and I weep for her social future.  Thank God she is both smart and pretty. 

My first-born. Apologies, dear daughter.

 

At her age, she is limited in the topics she can use to exercise her outrageous behavior, but she has discovered that the word “poop” annoys her mother to no end.  She uses it endlessly.  If her mother, my sainted wife, is doing flashcards with our youngest daughter, my outrageous offspring will find a way to work poop into the conversation: 

My wife:  What other words begin with the letter D? 

My oldest:  Dog begins with D. 

My wife:  Very good.  Dog does begin with D. 

My oldest:  Mom, you know that dogs poop, right? 

After my wife puts her in a time-out for saying “poop” for the 107th time that hour, she skips back to the flash card game which usually evolves into a rhyming game.  You can see it coming, can’t you? 

My wife:  What word rhymes with scoop, girls? 

My oldest:  Poop!  Poop rhymes with scoop! 

My wife:  You will have another time-out. 

My oldest:  Why?  They rhyme.  Poop certainly rhymes with scoop.  I am just answering your question.  I’m not using “poop” in a bad way.  I didn’t call anyone a poopy-head. 

This conversation would continue as my wife walks my daughter back to the hall for yet another time-out.  Here’s the thing.  I know why my daughter says outrageous things.  I say outrageous things.  It is compulsive.  We crave the reaction we get from being outrageous.  We like to make people laugh with our outrageous thoughts.  I made my father and brother laugh throughout my childhood.  The feeling of their laughter was better than ice cream, better than staying up late, better than any punishment was bad.  I assume my daughter feels the same way, and like my father I do laugh

I want to help my daughter.  I know that this desire to outrage people into laughter does not play so well in school.  It rarely plays well with peers.  So I sat down with my beautiful 4 year-old daughter and laid it out.  I told her that I understand why she likes to say “poop” and make people laugh.  I told her that I think it’s funny, too, and that I delight in her sense of humor.  I also explained, as best I could, that most people (including her mother) will not ever laugh.  They will be upset.  I told my oldest daughter that she could say all the outrageous things she wished to me.  Just spare everyone else, sweet girl.  I had the best intentions.  My oldest girl is my test case.  She is my first. 

This week I was sitting on the couch with my babies on my lap before work.  We were playing and tickling and enjoying the day.  My wife was making waffles and getting the table ready.  It was traditional domestic bliss.  Out of nowhere (so it seemed) my oldest squealed in joy and yelled “I love you poopy-head,” giving me a big hug.  My wife reacted predictably, scolding my sweet girl and directing her to take another time-out.  She looked at me with heart-broken eyes and said, “but poppa, I said “poopy-head” to you, not momma.  Why do I have to do a time-out?” 

She heard me.  She understood what I asked of her.  I just did a very poor job explaining my new “outrageous behavior” rule.  I was definitely a poopy-head. 

And now back to summer camp.  My parents, who had done church camps and Scouts in the 50s, believed the experience a week away at camp provided was an important step in child development.  Did I mention that I am the product of two MSWs (Masters of Social Work)?  They did not have websites or blogs or camp professionals to provide them with advice on “camper readiness.”  They just went with their guts – and I went away for a week of camp at age 7.  I can hear moms cringing across the web. 

I hated camp.  I got poison ivy so bad I required shots.  It was in my eyes, my throat, between my fingers and toes.  I didn’t shower or brush my teeth for a week (which was a positive in my mind).  I didn’t make any friends.  To top it off, the little YMCA camp I attended had an “eat-everything-on-your-plate” rule.  It seemed there were green beans served at every meal.  I did not like green beans.  I spent hours after meal times sitting alone in the dining hall staring at plates of green beans.  Come to think of it, I still don’t like green beans.  Go figure.  

It was a terrible first experience.  Truth to tell, I probably was not ready to go to camp at age 7.  My younger brother was (having seen me do it), as was my little sister, but I was not.  My parents listened to my tales of culinary abuse and sent me back the next year.  Developmentally, I was more ready that second year.  I enjoyed camp.  I made friends.  I even made it a career. 

I was my parents’ test case, as my daughter is for me.  As parents we make mistakes.  Good parents try and correct them, not by overreacting to the negative, but by looking for the positive and amplifying it.  Good parents tweak the rules when they find out they don’t work quite right.  Good parents learn that because their child wasn’t ready this year does not mean he or she won’t be ready next year.  Good parents try again. 

We’ll see you at Camp! 

Nathan

Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp, The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.

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