We were a few hours into family camp when I began to smell the whiff of mismatched expectations, but it took me a few solid days to reach the clear conclusion: across the vast expanse of Family Camp, we were the last people our kid wanted to be with.
It's hard to blame him, with all the options for greatness all around him, every hour of the day. His love language is forever and always anything with a ball and a score, anything that lets him use his body to the edge of its limits. Camp provides all of the above. I simply could not compete.
Tuck wanted to run and play. Explore new territory with new friends. All the time. I wanted him to want to hang out with me… us. I wanted him to embrace the first word in Family Camp. He wasn't feeling it.
There were some narrow windows that I felt were nonnegotiables, a few spots on the schedule that were reasonable times to ask him to be with us. During Family Devotions, for example. I wanted him to wipe the annoyed look off his face and offer some thoughtful words to the discussion. (No dice.)
I wanted him to sit with us at mealtimes. I wanted him to sit still for a few minutes, to engage in the dialogue, and to have more than a cup of hot chocolate and a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, as I felt a little strongly that variations of crunchy sugar and hot sugar weren't enough to sustain his activity at an even higher altitude than he was used to.
At one point, as we were caught in a web that tangled us tighter the more we tried to get what we each wanted, he said to me with more than a hint of exasperation, "Do you see why I don't want to hang out with you?!"
His words happened to be coupled with rosy cheeks and a sweaty face that looked just enough like the preschooler I so dearly remember, the little guy who was my sidekick, the one who thought I hung the moon, who smashed my cheeks to kiss my lips. His face held only a memory of those moments, and I wasn't ready for the fleeting remnants to push me away.
In circles of women, I am very often the one to speak my vulnerability first. I live most of my life as an open book, and I am okay with being the one to speak the truth so another woman can say, "Me, too." So, at one of the Connections (a morning conversation with 25 other pairs of parents while our kids played floor hockey and 9-Square with the beloved counselors), I spoke up. "I don't know how it's going for the rest of you, but our son seems to supremely hate us right now."
Crickets. Seriously, it appeared that nobody else was having this experience.
One mom very kindly said, "Oh, Trish, let me encourage you to give it a few years. We're here with our 17-year-old, and we are so delighting in his company away from the internet and his cell phone and all of the distractions at home. Hold tight. It will get better in a few years."
Peter said, "A few years? It's Wednesday. So this could be a long week."
The parent dialogue then ensued with lots of stories of successes, connections, heart change, dialogues, and sibling delights. This was not happening for our family, and I had decided to henceforth keep my mouth shut. It was bad enough to face this rift with my tall boy; I didn't want to be the only one floating alone in this sea of family bonding.
Later in the morning, one of the counselors spoke to all of us. He said, "Parents, thank you for letting us love your kids this week. Thank you for letting us speak into their lives and their hearts. There's something about a camp counselor… your kids want to be like us. They look at our jobs, with the zipline and the hiking and the horses and the volleyball, and to them it looks like a party every day. They want to be who we are. So we can say something once, and it goes straight to their hearts, even though you've been saying it every day for ten years. Thank you for letting us partner with you, to tell them again the things you've already been saying."
Peter put his hand on my knee. He said, "I think we need to just let him go, babe. He'll come back."
More tears. But through my tears, I nodded. Yes. I think that's what we need to do.
And so, halfway through the week, we began a new strategy with just one rule: "Just let us know where you are and where you will be next." That was the only rule.
I even kept myself from saying, "And drink plenty of water, please. And keep your inhaler close by, young man. And…" because where do you stop when you want to make sure they remember it all? You just have to … stop.
The gracious and beautiful thing about Family Camp is the security net. There are lots of people all over the place who are watching out for everyone and everything. So there's a safety net of security, and there is freedom to set just one rule. I leaned into Peter, who knows what a young man needs, and I opened my hands. I let my boy go.
And to my heart's great surprise, here's what happened: my son began to lead.
I didn't see much of Tucker, but I heard about him. Parents were coming up to me for the rest of the week, saying things like, "You must be so proud of that young man. He joined us for a hike today, and he was delightful."
And, "Your son taught my little guy how to shoot hoops today. What a great kid."
And, "Could Tuck sit with us at lunchtime? My five-year-old thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread."
And, "Tricia, your son is so polite. He is looking out for other campers, investing in little kids, and he is so very polite to the staff. What a great kid."
And from his counselor, "Tuck and I had a great conversation today. Man, he's a great kid. Deep thoughts and a good heart."
On the summer that is the eve of his middle school debut, Tuck needed me to ease up on the reins just a bit. He needed to run. He needed to soar. He needed to lead.
And if he was going to push me away, then I needed to point him in the direction of people I trusted, people who could say in a new voice the things I've been saying all along.
On the last night at the end of the week, after the campfire and s'mores, and just before he raced off for one last round of bowling, he came back to me.
He smashed my cheeks in his hands, just like he used to do, and it felt the same and different. After all, his hands are bigger, sweatier, and callused now.
"Mom, I just love you so much."
"I love you, buddy."
And then, of all the things, he kissed me right on the nose.
And then, with his forehead still touching mine, he said, "See ya, Mom."
And I said, "See ya, pal."
And I let him go.