The summer camp I went to as a kid encouraged autonomy. Going back for the alumnae camp reunion reminded me just how special that was. Now I'm making sure to give my 3-year-old that same freedom.

By Julia Dennison
February 11, 2020
Courtesy of Julia Dennison

My summer camp had a philosophy—something I generally took for granted when I scrabbled up its granite rocks and skipped down its pine-scented trails as a precocious 9-year-old. The idea at the core of Brown Ledge Camp, the all-girls sleepaway camp I went to on Malletts Bay on Vermont’s Lake Champlain, is whatever you do, do something, but whatever that something is is basically up to you. 

Of course the official language in the catalogue uses phrases like “self-discipline” and talks about encouraging “responsibility and achievement in girls and young women, through self-directed participation in varied activities," but what this basically means—and what is so radical compared to many other camps—is that all you have to do is leave your cabin, and then get out and do whatever strikes your fancy that day. It could be weaving across the archery field in hopes to find snaked arrows with your toes, hopping into a canoe to tour around the bay, diving off the high-dive, or painting a flat in the theater. But the beauty in all this is nothing is particularly scheduled, bar riding lessons, and everything is up to you—a rare treat for a child who isn’t even yet in the double-digits. Up until that point, I’d only ever been told what to do.

As parents, we’re used to doing so much for our kids, it’s easy to swoop in and do it all. The ubiquity of snowplow and helicopter parenting have made it feel like the norm to act one step ahead of your child to ensure they’re always happy and safe. As a mom, it’s easier to just do a chore quickly rather than endure the whining, retorts, and general aversion from a child who has no desire to do it. Yet, studies have shown that giving your child autonomy and independence is hugely beneficial, and inspires a feeling of confidence over their mind, body and environment. 

So it was after returning from “alumnae camp,” a biannual reunion of ex-campers where you get to just be a camper again for one weekend, with my 3-year-old daughter, where she ran down the same tree-lined paths I once did, that inspired me to start thinking more mindfully about what freedoms and experiences I could give her to be free and choose her own path.

It was with this in mind, a few weeks later, that I borrowed a Ford Explorer, with plenty of room to spread out (and plenty of storage nooks around the car’s interior to stash books, iPads, Goldfish, and various road trip entertainment devices—its tagline is literally “confident inside and out”), and hit the road for a weekend off the grid in the Catskills. 

Courtesy of Julia Dennison

Staying in a cottage far away from anywhere with signal bars, I was able to put my phone down and really watch my daughter respond to being off the beaten path. But instead of telling her what to do, I did a lot of following. I resisted my urge to rush back inside, away from the brisk air of a woodland summer morning, and let her follow deer tracks and amble slowly up paths that led nowhere. She overturned logs and poked at leaves, never with any particular goal in mind (does any 3-year-old?). I even took her kayaking on a nearby waterway, which was a test of my own resolve as a parent who loves to be in control. 

Once I got over my initial fear of tipping into the water, she pointed the way forward as we glided under weeping willows and moseyed quietly past herons statue-still in the calm waters. For me, as a busy mom who works a demanding job, it was a whole lot of doing nothing. But for her, it was everything, as she led the way, and for me it was also an exercise in letting go and giving her the autonomy that she deserves, even at 3. So when, on the drive home, she demanded a stop for cider donuts, well, I remembered my time as a Brown Ledger and let that be her call, too. 

Julia Dennison is the executive editor of Parents.com. She co-parents her 3-year-old daughter Esme (a future Brown Ledger) and her pughuahua Fergie. Follow her at @JuliaDennison. Check out her Instagram highlights from her Ford road trip here.

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