Health & Family

‘Kid-sick' parents have a hard time letting go

Eve Pidgeon watched the large group of kids, many of them laughing and chatting excitedly as they boarded a bus for summer sleepaway camp last summer.

“They just couldn't wait,” says Pidgeon, whose 8-year-old daughter, Zoe, was among the young campers.

Then Pidgeon looked around and noticed something else: “There were no children crying – just parents.”

These days, camp leaders and family counselors say it's an increasingly common dynamic. It used to be the homesick kid begging to come home from camp. While that still happens, they've noticed that it's often parents who have more trouble letting go.

They call it “kid-sickness,” a condition attributed in large part to today's more involved style of parenting. Observers also say it's only being exacerbated by our ability to be in constant contact by cell phone and computer, as well as many parents' perception that the world is a more dangerous place.

For leaders at many camps, it's meant that dealing with parents has become a huge part of their jobs.

“The time and energy camp directors put into preparing parents for camp is now equal to the time they prepare children for camp,” says Peg Smith, head of the American Camp Association, which works with about 2,600 camps nationwide.

Pidgeon readily admits she's one of those parents.

Last summer, the single mother of two wiped away her own tears as Zoe left for 10 days at Camp Maas, about 40 miles northwest of their home in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.

Before Zoe left, her mom loaded her daughter's backpack with stationery and stamps. Both Zoe's parents, who are divorced, and her younger brother, Ben, wrote to her often.

But as they watched their mailboxes each day, nothing came.

The family frantically checked the camp's Web site, where photos of campers were regularly posted. And her mom took some comfort in that.

“I could see she was immensely happy, her smile so big it must have hurt her cheeks!” Pidgeon says.

But still, no letters, even after she sent a fax to the camp that read “Zoe Pidgeon: Write to Your Mom Right NOW!!!”

Pidgeon later discovered that, when mailing her letters home, Zoe had decided to use stickers with bees on them that came with a letter-writing kit she'd received. She thought they were the same as the “normal stamps” her mom had given her.

Pidgeon laughed until she cried when she figured out what had happened. But even when she eventually got the letters Zoe had sent, something about them struck her.

“Her letters, when they came, weren't about missing us – it was all about her amazing adventures,” Pidgeon says.

Bob Ditter, a therapist who works with children, adolescents and families in Boston, has acted as a consultant to camps since the early 1980s and says he hears stories like those all the time.

He says there's something to be said for a parent who cares, but not to the point of becoming a “helicopter parent,” a term for parents who constantly hover over their children and solve their problems, even into adult life.

“Parents love their kids a lot,” Ditter says. But they also need to let go sometimes.

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