Shortly before our 13-year-old daughter embarked on her cross-country adventure from California to New York for summer camp (a flight to my hometown for a dose of Emergency Spoiling at Grandma and Grandpa's, then two weeks at the sleepaway camp I grew up attending in the Adirondack Mountains), she and I discussed her cell phone. "Grandpa's going to take the phone from you at the drop-off for safekeeping, and he'll bring it back when he picks you up," I explained. She nodded her understanding.
Like most kids her age, texting is a primary daylight activity. But she also knows that at the secluded lakeside camp, the only way to get a signal is to stand at the end of the swimming dock and balance like the Karate Kid, at sunset, when prevailing winds are from the southwest and a meteor shower is imminent.
The next day, my husband said to our daughter, in passing, "Call us when you get settled in your cabin." She laughed. "Dad, I'm not going to have my phone there. I'm going to be too busy anyway."
It must be said, my husband freaked out a little. "How are we supposed to reach her?" he asked me that night. "Letters," I answered. "Well, I think they'll make an exception for us, since we're from California," he insisted. "We can at least call her on the weekend, right?"
Nope, no exceptions, no signal, no nothing. We're halfway through 14 days of not talking with the kid we've spoken to (or have been spoken at by) for 13 1/2 years straight. It's very 1974 all up in here. And if I die just a little smidge every time I think, I have NO idea what she's doing right now, for our daughter's sake, I'm relieved. My friend Molly has a daughter the same age who recently attended a Science/Tech sleepaway camp and the kids were allowed to call home each evening. Molly says that her daughter would be fine at the beginning of the call and homesick by the end of it. Pour another round of homesickness, barkeep, and keep it coming!
It's so unusual these days for a child and parent to have a good excuse to not be in constant telephone contact. I worry that these devices give kids an unhealthy feeling of vulnerability, one that every sensationalistic news story about a kidnapping or robbery helps stoke. My kid, for instance, texts me from babysitting jobs to tell me what's happening. I text back, "Turn off the phone and play with the kid. I don't need to know." I know kids who text their parents as they move from store to store in the same shopping mall. What happened to picking a place and time to meet up?
We're not there yet, but I know there are college kids who text Mom and Dad all day long from campus. I don't know what to say about that besides, good god, that has GOT to cut into your time for flirting with soccer players and making party plans and bagging on your ridiculous freshman year roommate. You may as well just stay home and attend college online.
These little one week and two week intervals in which a child gets to operate wholly independently of Mom and Dad offer something priceless: a glimmer that not only might independence be manageable, it might even be desirable. That there is power in detail, what she decides to share of her camp experience with her family and what she decides to keep to herself. I'm not encouraging secrecy as much as I'm endorsing a rich and proprietary inner life. Those are of incomparable value.
There's another benefit of her being cut off from modern communication channels: we will have letters to keep. That's right, honest-to-god stamped, handwritten letters written for me to pull out and reread, moments from her childhood preserved in amber. I can't imagine she'll ever need to write me letters again -- all our communication will be digital as she heads off to college and then starts her own life. But I'll always have this little stack of tattered envelopes and letters written in turquoise gel pen, with messages to her sister written as an afterthought on the envelopes.
Of course, despite its lousy signal, the camp isn't totally in the Stone Ages. It has a Facebook page and some dutiful counselor is photographing every group activity and posting the shots online. So every afternoon, my younger daughter and I peruse the photos, looking for proof that her sister is having fun. There she is cracking up at a campfire. There she is in the Craft Barn making candles. In almost every picture she's beside the same dark-haired girl, their shoulders close enough to indicate real friendship. It's reassuring to see her having so much fun.
I just wish I had the strength of character to wait and let her write to me about it (or not) herself.