Elliott Sullivan at summer camp.

I took Elliott to play nine holes of golf and noticed he was hunched over his junior clubs in a manner that resembled a bear riding a tricycle. So for verification, we consulted the very official marks on our kitchen wall, which told me he had grown 2.5 inches between March and June. Sharing a hotel bed with him a couple nights ago I realized this once cuddly smush of a human is now a gangly sack of elbows and knees that steals covers and snores. I may need to re-trace my steps to figure out exactly what happened.

He had recently spent his first ever week at sleepaway camp. I sent them a 10-year-old and they gave me back a full-blown pre-teen. He did celebrate his 11th birthday while there, but can someone slow this train down a bit? Months back when camp was being planned, Elliott needed a little prodding, but I needed A LOT of convincing. Kristen comes in handy in these situations. Without her influence I might be online shopping for the XXL Baby Bjorn. She chose Gwynn Valley camp, which is tucked away in Brevard, N.C. Any designs I may have had on helicopter parenting would be thwarted by the mountain terrain.

As the time approached we relished the idea of a week of YouTube and Fortnite detox. But I was grappling with the memory of my first week away at a CYO basketball camp when I was about Elliott’s age. My counselors were Tommy from the Bronx and Mikey from a different part of the Bronx. I remember Tommy welcoming me by saying, “choose any bunk you want—they’re all crappy.” Mikey showed up with a big bag of candy. “You guys like candy? Have some friggin’ candy.” He tossed Reeses peanut butter cups and Gobstoppers to us as he marched down the center of the cabin. What seemed implied was that this was the first and last nice gesture we should expect from him.

Thankfully, there was a different vibe at Elliott’s camp. His counselors were Wasam from Israel and Josh from Ireland. Neither had any candy, but Wasam was a cutup and kept the boys in stitches all week. Josh was a gentle soul who shepherded us all through the experience. He pulled me aside at drop-off to discuss any anxiety Elliott might be feeling. I explained that Elliott had never been away from home for a week and asked him to encourage Elliott to try things that might be a little out of his comfort zone. Of course, what I really needed was for Josh to assure me in his comforting lilt, “Everything will be just fine, dad.”

Extraordinarily basic details ate at me like — will Elliott remember to change his underwear? Will he eat? What if it is the middle of the night and he has to go to the bathroom? Kristen and I scoured the camp photos each night for signs of life. Sure enough, there he was learning archery or gearing up to scale the giant climbing wall or blacksmithing. Blacksmithing! The kid made me a hook!

He hiked, swam and kayaked. He rode a horse, played soccer and basketball. He made great friends and learned about farming. There is a working farm on the site that yields 70 percent of the food they eat throughout the week. Josh closed out each evening by reading an Irish fable to the boys. The only problem with this place was that they don’t accommodate would-be campers in their forties. I’m considering a petition.

Elliott came home a little more confident and relaxed. And despite his strongest impulses, he’s even a smidge more self-sufficient. If I could slow it all down, I probably would. But I can’t. Middle school starts in a month and this train keeps rolling along. So for the moment, I am just enjoying the heck out of 11.

Tim Sullivan grew up in a large family in the Northeast and now lives with his small family in Oakhurst. He can be reached at tim@sullivanfinerugs.com.

2 replies on “TimmyDaddy: Send a kid away to camp, get back a pre-teen”

  1. Tim,
    LOVE your most recent blog, and truly do love them all.
    We have all gone through similar experiences as parents of “letting go,” and I think it’s among the most difficult thing a parent has to do.
    When our oldest son went to college in Ohio, I cried so hard after dropping him off that the eleven flights of stairs we walked down were soaking. (Well, my husband added to that pool as well.) It didn’t get much easier with the others, but the oldest was the hardest. Lots of love to you and all of your family.
    Mary Gallagher

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