Writing Letters to Your Kids at Camp Is Weird

Snapshots of life at home.
June 19 2014 12:26 PM

Dear Son, Who Am I?

Writing letters to your kids at camp is weird. 

Camp letters.
Why is this so hard?

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photos by Shutterstock

Last week we dropped my two sons off at their first overnight camp. They are 9 and 11. They will spend almost a month there, and we will be here, at home, feeling weird about things. Since the only way I can communicate with them is by mail, and since one of my favorite Slate pieces this year was John Dickerson’s beautiful Mother’s Day meditation on writing letters to his children, I thought, “Right, cool, not only will I finally launch this important practice, but I will also make John really, really happy.” So I started writing them letters the week before they left, which was strange because they were usually fighting bitterly over comic books in the next room, and “Dear Darlings, I am counting the hours … ” seemed ungenerous.  

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Here is the problem in writing letters to your kids—perhaps especially as a writer, who has arguably spent her entire professional life writing letters to everyone who isn’t her kids: How do you suddenly start writing in a grand literary fashion to two small people whom, heretofore, you pretty much have only talked to as follows: “Did you brush?” “Did you wash your hands?” “Did you put it in the hamper?” and “Don’t flush it before I can see it.”   

For most of us, the days when people wrote long, thoughtful letters to their children have long gone. They have been replaced by the terse Post-it note in the lunch. “Have a great day. Eat your banana. Love, Mom.” These are often accompanied, in our case, by stick drawings of things that look like me but with Funyuns for hair.

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Unless you’ve been penning elaborate Tolstoyan missives for years, it is extra-difficult when you have to start abruptly in the middle of the relationship, with long, reflective musings to the people you love most in the world but have never written to, and don’t really know how to talk to in print.

So my first efforts were indisputably lame. The letters I composed the first day were effectively the repurposed notes I once sent my best friend in fourth grade: “Do you like camp? Yes [ ] No [ ].” “Is the food good? Yes [ ] No[ ].” I thought to myself, “Really, do I want them to think, ‘Thank God I am not home with that dope and her check boxes?’ ” So I started to cast around for a more appropriate voice in which to write to my kids.

All the advice I had read about camp letters suggests that you should not talk about feelings, ask multiple pointed and specific questions, and be relentless. So it’s a bit like being a CIA interrogator, but with a return address. A friend described how he wrote letters to his kid at camp from the dog, so I wrote one that was ostensibly from my cat. Literally. I wrote, “meow, meow, rub my belly! Love, Stubby.” It was too stupid to mail. Really. How hard can this be? So I retreated to that horrible place all Gen X writers go to when choked by unspoken sentiment: irony. I sent them each a Christmas card. At a Jewish camp! In June. Get it? Heh-heh. Those will likely be arriving today. In time for Sabbath.

At this point my children were already in the backseat of the car with their duffel bags and 14(!) pairs of shorts each, and I hadn’t yet written a single good letter. I hadn’t penned a single authentic or interesting line, and the pressure was becoming intolerable. I wanted to kiss them goodbye and whisper, “Mommy loves you but is incapable of expressing that in print! Bye!” And that’s when I started reading great letters from parents to their children and becoming seriously intimidated. Here is F. Scott Fitzgerald writing (gorgeously) in list form to his daughter:

Things to worry about:
Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about …
Things not to worry about:
Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys

But he lost me at mosquitoes. And failure. And part of me didn’t want to send lists. We live almost exclusively in lists. I wanted to write not-lists to my kids.

I then attempted briefly to replicate this amazing note sent by Kurt Vonnegut to his daughter, which is full of wry observation (“Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice”) and lofty goofiness (“Don’t answer this letter for years. Remember me fondly”), but Vonnegut is Vonnegut and the rest of us are really nonnegut.

On the fifth day that my children were gone, I decided to defer these painful questions of parental tone and wisdom by simply sending stuff. Stuff, not words! It’s the American way. This produced a kind of potlatch performance—stuffed animals and fake nose-and-glasses combinations and mini-kites and disposable cameras. The enclosed notecard was in fact narrated by the stuffed animals, which was only slightly stupider-feeling than writing from the cat, and decidedly will be far more embarrassing upon receipt. Just what kids need. More plastic, fewer words.

Finally, the day before yesterday, I attempted to replicate the pouring-out torrential love of Anne Sexton to her 15-year-old daughter Linda (poor Linda!), but it is considered extremely bad form nowadays to shower your children with your own crazy, especially in print and/or affidavit form. We work so hard to hide our true selves from our kids, especially the bonkers parts. Moreover, it seems possible that the week you are trapped in a leaky cabin with a pile of strangers is not the ideal time to hear a list of your parents’ existential worries about the fleeting nature of life, love, and bottomless loneliness.

And on the sixth day I rested.

The breakthrough came on Day 7, which is today, on which I realized that the challenge in writing a letter to your kid lies not in mediating between Vonnegut and Sexton, or between your kid and yourself, or even—truth be told—between Joycean literature and the do-this-do-that voice. The challenge lies in telling them the most complicated thing in the world: that you love and miss them so much your back teeth hurt, and also you’re so glad they are off having an adventure that has nothing to do with you, and you will never fully know about. It’s a hard thing to tell your kid because it’s a hard thing to tell yourself: I want to be with you always. I also want you to leave me and have an awesome time that I know nothing about. (Don’t even get me started on kids’ letters home. We’ve had one from each so far, and both prominently featured news of the younger one’s nosebleed, although mercifully, no actual blood spatter.)

Mainly, while I may long for the lost era of sweaty 12-page missives posted across thousands of miles of wintry wasteland, and teeming with parental insight, and also news of Lyolya and Noletchka and Seryozha, I am chiefly glad that I am only away from my children a few days a year, and that, as I realized far too late in this process, you can type and print out your letters to camp, which may be neither romantic, nor literary, but has that essential quality of being done.