Parents, cut the high-tech cord to camp

By Julie Kraut

Special to The Washington Post

Published: Thursday, July 30 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Camp Tuttle participants leave cell phones and PDAs behind to walk at Silver Lake near Brighton Resort.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

You've just returned home after dropping your child off at sleep-away camp. You have an entire summer of childless freedom stretching before you. What's the first thing you do? Take a nice long bath? Un-TiVo "Hannah Montana"? Blast soft rock without any teenage eye-rolling?

Try none of the above. What you'll probably do, if you're like many parents today, is run to your laptop, log into the camp's Web site and watch streaming video of your daughter unpacking. Then you'll send her an e-mail about the most efficient way to fold T-shirts.

When I was a camper back in the dial-up days of the '90s, my father's computer-typed letters were as high-tech as it got. So when I started writing "Slept Away," a novel set at a present-day sleep-away camp, I dove back into the world of bug juice and kickball to see how much camp had changed. I braced myself for campers Skyping home and Wii bowling as an activity elective but was actually pleasantly surprised. Most camps have no-tolerance policies about campers bringing cell phones or PDAs, land-line phone calls are limited, and the bunks still are not air-conditioned.

The pine-scented world of my camping youth is not a technology dead zone, however. Parents are the ones who can't seem to cut the power-adapter cord.

And why should anyone expect them to, really? Parenting is a tech-dependent endeavor during the school year — texting about after-school pick-ups, e-mailing the math tutor for progress reports and Googling the new varsity softball coach. Camps are just keeping up with what modern parents expect.

Toby Ayash, the new executive director of Pinemere, the camp I attended for six summers, said that within the past five years, parents have become far more demanding when it comes to keeping tabs on their children.

Many camps update photo galleries daily with campers-in-action shots. They send e-newsletters chronicling camp life. Some offer streaming Web video of important events or religious worship. I even found one camp that boasts regular video podcasts from several cameras placed around the grounds.

Since when did camp leave the summer fun category and get re-filed somewhere between reality show and medium-security prison?

The whole point of sleep-away camp is for children to learn to be independent, have the freedom to experience new things and enjoy nature. And if you're my parents, to have the free time to go on fancy European vacations without worrying that your older kid is going to convince your younger kid to touch priceless paintings and get you kicked out of a Dutch museum. This Big Mother is watching e-surveillance thwarts those goals.

While Ayash says that she's happy to speak with parents, even the ones who need to chat on a daily basis, she admits that their requests occasionally get ridiculous. "We've created a monster," she says of the photo galleries that camps make available to families. This is her first summer at Pinemere, but at other camps where she has worked, parents have called her with complaints that a son looked too pale in the photos, so he must be sick, or a daughter looked too tan, so she must not be wearing sunscreen.

I read one newspaper interview in which a mother explained that her son wasn't in enough of the photos in the camp's online gallery. She e-mailed him via the camp's program that prints and distributes messages from parents, instructing him to get in front of the camera. The next day, there were several pictures of him featured, she reported proudly, ignoring the fact that he took time out of actually having fun to do a photo shoot to show her that he was having fun.

Maybe all a well-meaning parent wants is to make sure that his or her little camper is healthy and happy. But there's never going to be an "Infirmary Update" with a photo montage of the impetigo epidemic in Bunk 1 or a guest post from the homesick camper who cried so hard last night that he puked. The information that is posted online is sanitized official camp news, like who won Color War and what the Fourth of July craft project was. And that doesn't reveal much about a specific child's experience.