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Why Camp Might Unexpectedly Teach your Kids the Art of Letter Writing

I don’t remember writing letters to my parents when I was a nine year old at sleepaway camp in New Hampshire, though I’m sure I did. (That’s me sailing on the right.) Only now do I realize the impact my letters must have had on my parents. Here’s why.

Our twelve-year-old son is nearing the end of his first sleepaway camp experience. We think he’s had a great time, though our contact with him has been extremely limited. Yes, we’ve spotted him in some of the photos the camp has been posting on their website for parents.

And his eLetters (scanned physical letters that the camp uploads and emails to us) have painted an overall positive experience.

The first time away from home is a big deal for any kid. It can be hard. It certainly was for me when I was nine and went to sleepaway camp for the first time at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Of course, I got homesick. But I remember having a lot of fun too.

Now, as a parent, I’m obviously on the opposite side of this equation.

Letters from our Son
One unexpected pleasure has been reading his letters. It goes way beyond whether he’s simply happy. (Though that’s important!)

This is actually the first time he’s written physical letters to us. And we’ve really heard his voice about his day through his written words.

And knowing this has been his only conduit to my wife and me, I think he’s treated this analog experience with a previously unrealized sense of importance.

And I wonder if these unexpectedly detailed letters will contain more information and perspective than our early reunion conversations upon his return.

Communicating with a Tween
If you’re a parent of a tween, I think you know what I’m getting at. My questions to our son about his day sometimes receive a one-word response.

It’s entirely possible our first moments after we pick him up from camp will go like this…

I’m driving. He’s in the back seat…

“How was camp?”

“Good.”

“Did you have fun?”

“Kind of.”

“Did you make some friends?”

(pause)

“Uh huh.”

On the other hand, he could spend the entire three-hour car ride back telling us about his many adventures. It’s hard to know exactly what to expect.

I know we’ll hear his stories… eventually.

But we’ve already got his letters. And to me… they’re gold.

Discovering the Art of Letter Writing
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but he’s really picked up the art of letter writing. He’s a natural storyteller using the written word. I’ve seen many hints of this through his school work.

But reading my boy’s camp letters has dramatically refocused my point of view on the value of letter writing.

In today’s always-rushed, digital-first world, who’s got time to write a letter? Maybe an email or a quick text. If you’re feeling really ambitious, perhaps a short video message.

That’s all better than nothing. But a real letter that’s crafted from your bare hands… Whoa. How special is that?

Like Father, Like Son?
Across the past decade of writing this blog, I have sometimes been guilty of expressing myself through the written word without ever articulating the same stories with the same detail.

It would seem that on certain topics, I feel more comfortable writing out the stories than verbalizing them with the same clarity.

As I look back across my decade of weekly posts, I think this blog has more than occasionally served as my own letters written home (though of course, I’m communicating to a different audience).

As I expose this self-reflection, I realize my admission brings up a number of issues surrounding the psychology of blog writing (another topic for another day).

For now, I’ll simply draw a parallel between writing a blog and the art of letter writing from camp. The written word can reveal so much.

Tell Me a Story
Of the many growth opportunities a summer camp can offer a child, who knew that writing letters home could so strengthen the storytelling muscle?

Sure, not every camper’s letter will reveal the center of a child’s heart, but if you’re lucky, there will often be details that reveal true feelings.

I expect most parents don’t send their kid to sleepaway camp to learn how to write a good letter, but I’ve realized it’s an added bonus.

This all may be an obvious point, but it’s one that this parent has happily figured out.

Why Can’t People Remember my Name?

My name is not Lester Barrett. But lots of folks have incorrectly called me Lester across the years. Here’s how I handle this challenge.

I have two first names and two last names. My parents thought Barrett was a cool name, and my mother told me that she liked the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. So, Barrett is born, and my story begins.

I Like my Name
There are not that many Barrett’s out there. Not as a first name. Not that I’ve found. In fact, I think I can count the number on one hand. I’ve always thought that was great. Not having to share my name with countless others. It complements my identity as an only child. (But that’s another story for another day.)

Hi, my name is Barrett. How do spell that? That’s Barrett with two t’s.

Please Don’t Call me Barry
That’s usually as far as it goes with my first name. People get it. It’s easy to pronounce. Barrett sticks the landing pretty much every time as a functional name. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

Sometimes people ask me if I have a nickname… like Barry. No.

I hate ‘Barry.’ That’s not my name. Please don’t call me that.

My name is Barrett. And with surname?
Barrett Lester

And when they hear my both names, that’s when many folks run into trouble.

Lester is not my First Name
That’s because Lester is a more common first name. And Barrett is a more common last name.

I would say that across my entire life to date, 50-55% of people I meet initially call me Lester, either verbally or via email. And after I correct them, another 20-30% make the mistake again or even repeatedly.

Just so you know, I’m not really that upset about all of this. Yes, it’s a little inconvenient. But I actually find it quite interesting.

Paying Attention to Complexity
Names in general can be a terribly complex category. Even the simplest of names can have any number of different spellings. You’ve really got to pay attention. (I am absolutely not immune to occasionally misspelling a name.)

When it comes to names, everyone should be on their toes. You can’t make any assumptions.

My Jedi Mind Trick
To be fair, yes, I know Lester sounds like a better first name. And that presumption seems to be locked into a number of brains I’ve encountered.

It’s locked in really tight, and I realized many years ago that I needed a solution that would effectively rewrite that flawed code in people’s brains. I had to rewire that Lester-first neuron pathway into a stronger Barrett synapse connection.

How did I do that? Trial and error.

I finally landed on a simple mental trick that works with the majority of my test subjects…

The correct order of my name is alphabetical.

  • The letter ‘B’ comes before the letter ‘L.’
  • It’s Barrett Lester.
  • That’s how you remember.
  • BAM!

After that, people get it right.

Use your Webcam
Anyone can make an innocent mistake when it comes to remembering a name. I think that’s even more likely if you’ve never met the person face to face or had voice contact.

Your connection may be as wafer thin as a cc on an email chain.

In today’s virtual work environments, there are often so many people we’re connected to who are almost total strangers.

That’s a problem. And it’s one that we all bear a responsibility to fix.

If you’re connected to someone as part of a personal or work community, then why not say hello and talk for a few minutes? If that person is half way across the world, then use your webcam.

A visual and audio connection can do wonders.

Really.

And that will help you to remember someone’s name.

What’s in a Name?
One last point on my name: There are a very few people who know me well who occasionally call me Lester with intention. It’s usually during a funny moment. And I like funny. Then that’s okay to call me by my last name. The intention to get it wrong is what makes it feel entirely right.

So let’s review.

Barrett Lester is my name. Please don’t call me Lester. Unless I know that you know that my name is Barrett. Then, you can call me Lester.

Am I clear?

I expect this entire blog post isn’t going to serve as my best Barrett Lester branding exercise, but if you use my Jedi mind trick that the letter ‘B’ comes first, you should be okay.

Thank you.

Diary of a Dad who Sent his Kid to Sleepaway Camp

Our son is away from home for the very first time, and this is how I’ve been coping over the first few days.

My wife and I dropped our son off at sleepaway camp this week after a three hour drive. He’s twelve, and it’s his first time away from our family (beyond sleepovers with friends). This big step would have likely come earlier if not for the pandemic. But this is the summer. And he was ready for it. The big question is… were we?

No Parenting Responsibilities. Yay!
As I drove home, my wife and I used the time to plan a weekend getaway. We also discussed a variety of activities we could do as a couple during our parental pause. It all seemed positively invigorating.

Then, we got home and our new reality set in.

No Parenting Responsibilities. Boo!
It was so quiet. Everything seemed a bit off without him around the corner. We talked about how our son might be doing after his first day. Did he have everything he needed? Would he quickly make friends? How was he adjusting to his new environment?

We had no information. And that was the plan. This camp is a screen and cellphone-free zone. But in our age of immediate and constant flow of digital communication, it felt really strange that there’s effectively a dome of silence over our son.

But not entirely. There are visual breadcrumbs to follow…

Putting on the Digital Detective Dad Hat
The camp posts photos daily on their website where my wife had already created our parent account.

An industrious camp photographer is snapping away all day and then uploads hundreds of pics the next morning for parents to review. It’s effectively a visual data dump, and it takes some time to go through.

As I reviewed the first group of photos, I spotted our son on the dinner line. Then, there was another photo of our boy eating dinner.

Wait! Who was our son sitting next to? Was that the same boy who was on the dinner line with him in the previous photo? It was!

Okay… That’s good. Maybe that’s a new friend he just made. Hard to really know based on two photos.

The following day, I pulled up the new crop of photos and started searching for our little Lester. (He’s actually not so little anymore.)

No. No. No. Nothing.

Wait… there he is again! He’s walking somewhere. And…
…And he’s walking with that same boy.

I’d definitely say that’s a new friend.

After two days and three photos, I’ve derived the following:

  • Our son is not starving.
  • He’s made at least one new friend.
  • He seems happy enough.

I feel like a digital detective, putting together an entire storyline based on a few visual fragments. But it’s something. And these few clues definitely sooth my parental craving for information.

Do You have an Extra Stamp?
Of course, we’ve also supplied our boy with a stack of pre-stamped envelopes and stationary. The old-school practice of letter writing is still alive and well at summer camps.

But snail mail in 2022? Come on! There must be a faster way!

And there is.

Our camp uses an eLetter system where both parents and campers can effectively email each other. For the kids, it’s actually more of a scan-a-physical letter system where the camper first writes a letter with pen and paper. Then, the letter gets scanned and uploaded.

We received our first eLetter on day three, and it was a fairly lengthy report! He wrote that he missed us (as well as our cat). He was also enjoying himself and gave us some detail on his early experiences.

In short, our lad was doing just fine.

Time to Disconnect?
There’s a certain irony that though we’ve sent our boy to a summer experience that is technology free, I am now glued to the camp’s website each morning.

Perhaps I could also benefit from a few weeks away from glowing screens, keyboards and the constant drip of digital info. A total blackout and disconnection. A cleansing of sorts.

Wait, let me think about that for another moment…

ARE YOU KIDDING?!

It’s Not Party Time Yet
Our son is away from home for the very first time! I need that digital tether, thin as it may be. Every morsel of information is welcome.

I hear that parents who send their kids to summer camp over multiple years quickly move into a ‘party mode’ mentality during their kid-less weeks.

For me, maybe next week.

For now, I’ve got to review a few hundred camp photos to try to figure out what our son was up to yesterday. And then, I want to write another eLetter to him.

Thank goodness for technology.

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