Sunday, June 3, 2012

Campout one: Mostly a success

Psalm 103:8-18 (NIV)

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
   slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
   nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
   or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
   so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
   so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
   he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
   and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
   the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
   and his righteousness with their children’s children —
with those who keep his covenant
   and remember to obey his precepts.
We survived the campout — barely. Stopping short of a rundown of our entire itinerary, the highlights were Jack and Max getting to fish for the first time (in pond seemingly overstocked with underfed fish), the giant campfire (Jack insists it was as tall as our house) and the sheer joy of the boys at seeing a real live tent in is natural habitat (as opposed to a sporting goods store). Jack also was a big fan of dinner (the hot dogs were better than mine) and breakfast (three pancakes and four sausage links, which required a combined four trips through the line).

Extra bonus: This place is less than 15 minutes from home.
We borrowed a tent from my parents that is roughly 30 years old (it was the first tent I camped in when I was younger than Jack) and the boys were oblivious to its multiple obvious signs of age. Kristie was not, but she wasn’t staying overnight. Neither was Max, which he was quite unhappy to learn. His consolation prize was s’mores cooked over our gas range.

But it was not all highlights for Jack. There was a bit of a kerfuffle during kickball when all four boys on his side determined they were first in line to kick. When it was time for the all-Scout picture, when Jack probably would have benefited from some down (alone) time, he instead got frustrated he could not find his group — after all, there were about 150 kids all wearing the exact same blue shirt — and nearly missed the photo because he was pouting in the parking lot.

A similar problem and similar attitude nearly derailed our entire evening. He was supposed to be sitting with his den for the campfire, which features poorly performed skits aimed right at a second-grade sense of humor, the recognition of each Scout as they move from one level to the next and a little too much (for my taste) recognition of adult leaders — worthy contributors, to be sure, but these folks should have a better handle on the attention span of their target audience.

Once Jack finally settled down for this program, it was exactly what I’d hoped. Aside from the lousy seating accommodations (next year I’ll bring my camp chair over ahead of time), Jack and I watched the whole thing together, alone despite being surround by two hundred Scouts and family members. He asked me to explain a few of the skits, headed to the front with his Den the two times they were called and masked his excitement when I explained he almost single-handedly earned his Den top honors for the “Leave No Trace” crime scene exercise.

The night ended a bit prematurely. I was sitting in the pavilion watching some of the kids play bingo (I just wanted to be somewhere with a light) and a mother of one of Jack’s Den mates came to find me because Jack had hurt himself while playing flashlight tag. So I got quickly back to our tent to find his Den leader and her co-Cubmaster standing outside, while inside Jack was crying and asking everyone to just leave him alone. I thank the adults and sat down on the floor with him, realized his two bandages were all the medical attention he’d need and simply waited him out.

The good part of Scouting is if you do sustain minor injuries, the other Scouts are programmed to help and the campground is crawling with adults trained in first aid. The bad part is when a child like Jack hurts himself, the last thing he wants is attention from anyone, so all of those kids and parents doing their best to make sure he is OK are unwittingly aggravating the situation. The best thing to do is to give him what he wants — a caring adult who will sit down and pretend everything is fine until he feels good enough to ask for lemonade and chocolate.

On the upside, the old tent stayed up, it didn’t rain and the floor didn’t get wet (I incorrectly assumed there was a tarp in the tent bag), Jack went to sleep with ease, slept in and did not have any overnight accidents. We had fun at breakfast, Jack was very helpful with the teardown and, in a total reversal from the norm, his good mood did not disappear the second we got home. He was pleasant and more throughout the afternoon, even lending a big hand cleaning the house, all of his own volition. That might be the biggest development of all, given how the usual pattern is for his time away from home to be followed with a steady stream of rotten once we’re reunited.

I did not intend to write 780 words about just Jack, though I guess it’s no big surprise given how my parenting senses were on edge the entire time. What I had not expected was to encounter a fairly new (to me) issue in the world of parenting — other people’s kids.

It started soon after we arrived. I was trying to put together our tent with my little helpers, and one of the other kids at our campsite (not in our den, but someone Jack knows from school, let’s call him David) was wielding a fishing pole like a weapon. David’s dad was paying far more attention to his tent than his kid. I was immediately uncomfortable with the fishing pole situation, but I bit my tongue. Not my kid, not my problem… until the pole got just a little to close to Max’s face for my liking. Had Jack been the perpetrator, Max wouldn’t have been so passive. Fortunately Max does not treat strangers like he treats his brother. But this also means I needed to step in, because Max wouldn’t, and David’s dad wasn’t going to either.

Once I decided I had to do something, I then had to decide what to do. I settled for being as responsible as possible, said something to the effect of, “Hey, buddy, can we be done with the fishing pole thing? I think we’ve had enough.” Only then did David’s dad pipe up. “David, David… one, two…” That’s pretty much all I heard David’s dad say the whole day, because a similar incident happened during kickball, except this time the kid was annoying about four or five parents at once, none of us willing to discipline someone else’s child, all of us waiting for his dad to notice and intervene. Once he heard another adult say his son’s name, the dad was on top of it.

I know my son can be difficult. Very, very difficult. I would not argue if someone told me Jack at his worst was the most difficult boy at Scout camp, only because most people I know have not had any experience with his particular struggles and unpredictable (to them) responses. Knowing this does two things. One — it lets me never be anything less than vigilant when in a public setting. I need to witness everything because I know Jack will never give me a straight story after the fact. Two — it conditions me to give other parents a great deal of slack because I am in no position to assume a child is easy to deal with if the parent would just try a little harder. Learning when to step in is difficult to discern, but I don’t think I’ll ever go wrong if I use the safety of my own child as a guiding principle.

We also had some minor issues with another boy in Jack’s Den, a kid I was loosely familiar with before hand. It’s clear to me this boy is working through his own challenges and determining how best to relate to other people, and I was able to enforce our boundaries (as in, please don’t rip open the door to our tent and just barge in because my wife and baby are inside right now) without causing undue hard feelings. But this situation, as opposed to David and his borderline observant father, felt like a situation similar to what we go through with Jack. Although the specific issues seemed different, the larger challenge of appropriate behavior and interaction was very familiar.

I will not lie — I was irked by both the kid and, at one point, his mother for leaving him alone at the campsite, when clearly he was not able to handle such freedom. Naturally, David was busy testing his limits at the same time, while David’s dad was busy not paying attention inside the tent. At least, and happily against my expectation, Jack obeyed when I told him he was not to play fight with sticks.

But I think a large part of the Scouting experiment for our family is going to be learning about dealing with other people. From my initial observations, Scouting (in our area at least) tends to draw in a lot of kids who might not click with the mainstream populace. It’s not group therapy or anything, but it’s a setting in which the boys can learn not just the pragmatic skills Scouting teaches, but also to be good friends. Unlike school, no one is forced to be there. The adult leaders are exceedingly patient, committed to fairness and encouraged to cultivate responsibility. The tagalong parents are exposed to the whole process, and we can actually get to know our sons’ friends, rather than learn a few names of schoolmates or the other boys on the soccer team.

The best part is the feeling that Jack is accepted — that our whole family is welcome. Max already looks up to Jack, but after a few hours at the camp site, he now desperately wants to try his hand at Scouting as soon as he is old enough. Charlie was by far the youngest person around, but even he seemed pretty content to be involved. I had no experience in this world growing up, but I have high hopes it will be something fulfilling and enriching for Jack. I know there will be many, many bumps in the road, but in the early going, I am encouraged. And that’s a pretty good feeling.

A prayer for June 3:

Lord, I thank you for a special weekend with my oldest son and the reminder of how closely we still are connected despite all the years and little brothers. I thank you for the adults and peers who took care of him when he needed help, and for my ability to be a calming presence in his life. I thank you for the compassion and grace to relate to other children, the patience to stave off my own anger and the restraint to intervene with stern respect. I pray we are able to carry the lessons of the weekend forward as we return to regular life and ask your guidance for a safe and special summer. Amen.

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