Stay­ing in touch with your kid at sum­mer camp is much eas­ier now. And it’s the worst.

Hana Schank’s son didn’t write home from sleep­away camp. But she heard all about it any­way.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - not Twit­ter: @hanaschank Hana Schank is a writer, a Web site us­abil­ity con­sul­tant and the au­thor of the e-book “The Edge of Nor­mal.”

When my son left last sum­mer for his first time at sleep­away camp, I ex­pected we wouldn’t get many letters. He was 8, af­ter all, and his pen­man­ship looked like he was be­ing poked in the arm by rhi­nos ev­ery time he picked up a pen­cil. I’d been a pro­lific let­ter-writer as a child be­cause I en­joyed writ­ing and loathed camp. Some of my fa­vorite camp mem­o­ries re­volve around rest hour, when I could be left alone to write my heart out. ( My bunk hates me, but that’s okay be­cause I hate them too! Ev­ery­one has Um­bro shorts but me! Wa­ter­ski­ing is awe­some.) My brother, on the other hand, loved camp and typ­i­cally man­aged to send out only the re­quired I got to camp. I am in bunk 8 mis­sive be­fore fall­ing silent for his re­main­ing eight weeks away.

I was hop­ing that my son’s postal habits would tend more to­ward my brother’s side of the spec­trum — I wanted to know that he was fine, but mostly too busy and happy to bother writ­ing. I steeled my­self for a de­gree of sep­a­ra­tion. What I didn’t count on was how con­fus­ing camp com­mu­ni­ca­tion is in the mod­ern era.

As I watched the camp bus pull away, I won­dered what kind of in­sane thing I’d done, send­ing my son off to live with strangers for four weeks with no abil­ity to make so much as a phone call for the first week. How was I go­ing to make it through the sum­mer? I needn’t have wor­ried. An hour later, my phone chimed with a text from the camp in­form­ing me about the sta­tus of the bus. It was head­ing to­ward Westch­ester but run­ning be­hind sched­ule. A few hours later, my phone chimed again. The bus had en­tered the state of Mas­sachusetts.

It was si­mul­ta­ne­ously too much in­for­ma­tion and not enough. On one hand, I felt re­as­sured that the camp kept in such close con­tact with par­ents. I was glad to hear that the trip was go­ing smoothly. On the other hand, the idea that the trip would go smoothly hadn’t crossed my mind un­til the camp felt obliged to up­date me. Why had the bus been run­ning be­hind sched­ule? Was there some­thing wrong that they weren’t telling us? And then hours passed with no fur­ther news. Had the bus driven off a cliff en route to Maine? With­out the up­dates, I would have waved good­bye as the campers left and as­sumed that all was well. But now I was in a state of ner­vous panic. And then in the early evening, a fi­nal text: The bus had made it to the camp in Maine.

I be­gan check­ing the camp blog first thing each day and dis­cov­ered that it, too, only stoked my anx­i­ety. Af­ter al­most a week, my son had yet to make an ap­pear­ance on the blog. I spent ev­ery morn­ing read­ing about what a group of kids I’d never met had been up to the pre­vi­ous day. I scanned cheery de­scrip­tions of camp-wide games in­volv­ing rid­dles, shout-outs to strangers who had passed their swim tests and mul­ti­ple ref­er­ences to the beauty of the camp’s lake. But not a sin­gle men­tion of my son. As I clicked through pic­ture af­ter pic­ture of smil­ing campers shoot­ing ar­rows and sail­ing, fear crept into my heart. Why wasn’t he in any of the photos? Was he off in a cor­ner cry­ing? Was he re­fus­ing to par­tic­i­pate? Was he so home­sick that he was spend­ing all his time at the nurse’s sta­tion buried un­der blan­kets?

As a par­ent, I’m of­ten awash in child-re­lated in­for­ma­tion. Other par­ents e-mail me real-time pic­tures of my kids on play­dates. Babysit­ters text me while I’m out to din­ner to ask where the Mo­nop­oly set is. Once my son tweeted me from school as part of a class pro­ject. Each new com­mu­ni­ca­tion leaves me both an­noyed and thrilled. I don’t like be­ing plucked out ofmy tem­po­rary child-free state — a time when I’m typ­i­cally en­gaged in some other ac­tiv­ity like earn­ing a liv­ing or hav­ing an adult con­ver­sa­tion or sim­ply en­joy­ing not be­ing needed by small chil­dren — to have my child’s ex­is­tence af­firmed. But then I look at the cute play­date photos or read my son’s tweet, which was about how he wanted to do lots of stuff to­gether, and my heart melts.

I’d been ner­vous about how four weeks of pos­si­ble si­lence from my son might feel, but this in­for­ma­tion over­load that said too much and too lit­tle was far, far worse. And then, one day, my son showed up on the blog. He was stand­ing in some kind of wood­work­ing shed, and he was hold­ing a saw.

At least I knew he was there. He hadn’t been lost in the wilder­ness when the camp bus drove off a cliff out­side Bos­ton. But was he . . . happy? And should an 8-year-old re­ally be hold­ing a saw?

Even more con­fus­ing, I was al­lowed to e-mail him daily, but campers were re­stricted to hand­writ­ten letters only. So ev­ery day I would sit down at the com­puter and try to fig­ure out what to say to some­one who had yet to com­mu­ni­cate with me. Some­one who hadn’t even both­ered to get his pic­ture taken while hold­ing a non­lethal tool so I’d know he was okay. At first my e-mails were just up­beat re­ports on my day and spec­u­la­tion about his. “We de­cided to re­paint the liv­ing room,” I wrote. “It’ll look dif­fer­ent when you come home. Are you learn­ing to use a saw?”

But over time, as the days passed and no letters ar­rived, I sensed that my e-mails to him were be­com­ing less like e-mails you might write to your 8-year-old child and more like jour­nal en­tries you don’t ex­pect any­one to read. “I watched the sun set last night,” I typed into the Email Your Camper form on the camp Web site. “It made me re­al­ize how in­fre­quently I get to ac­tu­ally see a sunset, and how when you’re watch­ing a per­fect one it makes the whole world quiet for a mo­ment.” I stopped short of ru­mi­nat­ing on the mean­ing of life and pressed send.

And then, three weeks into camp, a let­ter ar­rived. He’d for­got­ten to write our names on the front, or maybe I’d for­got­ten to tell him to do so. He’d never ad­dressed a let­ter be­fore. The en­tire ad­dress was crammed into the up­per left cor­ner of the en­ve­lope, which is a log­i­cal place to be­gin writ­ing some­thing on any piece of pa­per that isn’t an en­ve­lope.

“Dear Mama and Dad,” read the let­ter. “Camp is awe­some. My bed is near a win­dow. Love, Me.”

And with that, my fears dis­ap­peared. The angst and gnaw­ing worry that the texts and the blogs and the pic­tures had spawned, the im­ages in my mind’s eye of my son curled up in a ball, too mis­er­able to put pen to pa­per, van­ished. In the end, three weeks of si­lence and two hand­writ­ten lines gave me all the in­for­ma­tion I needed. My son was happy. And too busy to bother writ­ing.


Campers mak­ing mem­o­ries in Vir­ginia, above, andMary­land, be­low. To­day, many sleep­away camps keep par­ents con­stantly up­dated through blog posts and texts.

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