Keeping parents calm while kids are at camp

At Camp Louemma, Keenan and Susan Rosen, of Cherry Hill, reunite with daughter Dakota, 13, on parents visiting day.
At Camp Louemma, Keenan and Susan Rosen, of Cherry Hill, reunite with daughter Dakota, 13, on parents visiting day. (JAMIE TIBBALS photo)
Posted: August 07, 2014

Over the next week or so, parents will be piling into cars to collect their kids from overnight camps.

For many of them, it may feel like they never left.

Thanks to a small army of photographers, bloggers and parent liaisons - plus technology that serves up all that information securely - parents need not wonder for a minute what their kids are up to. Whether that's a good thing has been a topic of some debate.

Times have changed since the 1980s when Ali Reich of Abington was a camper at Camp Harlam in the Poconos, where she met her husband and now sends her 17-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter each summer.

"I think my parents hoped for a postcard every once in a while," she said. "As a parent now . . . you can basically spend your summer looking online for pictures of your kid. You can make it a full-time job. I know people who say it's a relief when their kids come home, because they have more free time."

Lately, that's felt like a slippery slope to Harlam's director, Aaron Selkow. The Reform Jewish camp has a five-person communications team, including two photographers who will upload 25,000 images this summer. That's in addition to a four-person camper-care team to take parents' calls.

An early adopter of the secure photo technology, Harlam has been uploading images since 2001.

"At the time, it seemed like an incredible asset to offer the families: a one-way look into the camp experience without cracking the bubble we've created to keep camp what it's meant to be," Selkow said. "But as the technology improved, the expectations of families have grown over the years. We've had to work harder to try to meet expectations."

Selkow understands parents' separation anxiety and legitimate curiosity. But he worries about how intrusive and expensive that feeding their ever-growing appetite for intelligence could become. In a world where day-care classes are live-streamed and kids' cellphones feature GPS trackers, real-time updates are easy to envision.

Mark Glaser, whose family has owned Camp Nock-A-Mixon in the Poconos for 33 years, said all this is a symptom of changing parenting styles and improved technology. Parents equip their children with cellphones, and are used to instant access.

Where once there was no formal phone policy - parents just called when they wanted - Nock-A-Mixon has had to create one. Last summer, the camp limited parents to three calls per summer; this year, they reduced it to two, finding more calls were too disruptive and upsetting to campers.

His camp also posts hundreds of photos a day, and sends out a daily newsletter to ease the withdrawal.

Paradoxically, it has not made his job easier.

"It has probably created more phone calls because [parents] tend to overanalyze the pictures," he said.

"If a child may not be smiling in the picture, they think the worst. If they're not sitting in the middle of the bench, they might think they don't have a lot of friends. Some may even have gone to the point of giving a signal to the children, where, if they're not happy, then in the photo they put up a signal."

Camp Louemma in Sussex, N.J., also uploads hundreds of photos each day, and recently has added video, too.

Hal Pugach, the camp's executive director, is used to frantic phone calls because a child wasn't photographed on a given day. "We have parents that call because it looked like their child was wearing their glasses too far down on their nose," he said.

He has even caught parents smuggling phones to their kids.

But he's serious about trying to strike a balance.

"The whole concept of sleep-away camp really is to give children a little independence and self sufficiency, to get them to unplug and not have instant communication, and to live in a communal environment and resolve problems for themselves."

His camp has turned to a company called Bunk 1 that not only hosts photos but also provides a portal for parents to send one-way e-mails to children. Those are printed out and delivered to the campers once a day. The company also offers a return e-mail service, by which campers' notes - handwritten on stationery with a special bar code - are digitally delivered to parents.

They've also had to hire a dedicated parent liaison, so parents have someone to call at the first prickle of anxiety. In the last five years, that's been a full-time job, he said.

It's natural to worry, said Matthew Goodman of Upper Dublin, whose sons, ages 15 and 12, both attend Nock-A-Mixon. After all, that independence is new to his kids, who he admits live in a "helicopter-parenting environment." And the worrying was somewhat vindicated, for example, when on visiting day one year they found one son, sent to camp with 12 clean towels, had only used one of them - for the pool, the lake and showers.

Still, he decided a few years ago to stop looking.

"It used to drive me crazy, wondering where they were and why weren't they in the pictures," he said. "Now my wife just shows me the favorites."

Others feel pressured not to miss a single photo. His wife, Jodi Goodman, admits to checking the site multiple times a day, scrutinizing the photos and once calling because several days had gone by without her sons appearing.

"I like it as a parent, but I don't know that it's necessarily for the best," she said. For one thing, no amount of photos is enough to ease parents' minds. And, she said, kids "deserve some privacy and freedom."

Not all parents are hooked on the photos. Cherry Hill's Susan Rosen, whose daughter Dakota, 13, goes to Louemma, said she checks the site once or twice a week and writes a few letters. Other than that, she's letting her daughter relish her independence.

"I feel like she's privileged to go, so let her enjoy herself," Rosen said.

But Ben Wachstein, of Lancaster, a member of Harlam's camp council, an advisory board, sees the flip side just as often. When he has to visit camp in the course of his duties, his Facebook feed is flooded with requests for photos or information on their kids' well-being.

He said all that is just part of the business now.

"If camps don't make that a priority, parents will go someplace else."

Selkow said he gets it: He's a helicopter parent himself. But he has to draw the line somewhere.

"We're going to give them as good a view as we can from a thousand feet from that helicopter, but we're not going to let them land."


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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