Seven Parenting Lessons from Daddy Day Camp

Larry Schooler and children

If there is anything even remotely beneficial about the need to limit our movements during the pandemic, it is that we have been granted a rare opportunity to get closer to those closest to us — our families.


by Larry Schooler

I needed a vacation — I had sat glued to my computer all day, every weekday, since the first of the year, and had spent the first quarter of the year on lots of airplanes. So, I found a three day window at the end of July with no immovable meetings and I planted a flag on the calendar.

“I may have been working hard at one of my jobs, but I hadn’t been working nearly as hard at another, more important one.”

And then, it hit me.

Larry Schooler and children
The author with his children.

I may have been working hard at one of my jobs, but I hadn’t been working nearly as hard at another, more important one. Our two sons, eight-year-old Sammy and six-year-old Robby, had demonstrated uncanny levels of resilience and perseverance over lo these many months, finding ways to entertain themselves, keep the peace, and leave our home (mostly) intact. But just because they could manage without me all week long doesn’t mean they should. After all, if there is anything even remotely beneficial about the need to limit our movements during the pandemic, it is that we have been granted a rare opportunity to get closer to those closest to us — our families.

And yet, there I sat, sometimes just a wall away from my kids in the next room, and all I could do was work, with the occasional household chore mixed in.

Against that backdrop, I erased “vacation” from the calendar and wrote “Daddy Camp.”

I wrote a detailed set of camp rules and activities for the three days (hours of operation: 10am-8pm), and I wrote a one long, aspirational camp chant (“We love Daddy Camp because we have FUN!”). I had no idea what to expect but figured I would at least learn something and feel a bit more “essential,” at least to our sons.

Seven Parenting Lessons from Daddy Day Camp

Among other things, I learned:

1) Schedules are nice, but so are unscheduled periods. We all probably benefit from a certain amount of structure, and I have been getting more and more fastidious in making mine, even experimenting with the Pomodoro technique of 25 minute work periods followed by a five minute break. I think there are benefits to this for work, but camp isn’t work, nor should childhood in general feel like work. The most fun we probably had was a game our older son developed (it involves picking up cotton balls by the nose) that wasn’t “on the schedule.”

2) Presence matters most. I am pretty convinced that the boys would have been happy doing almost anything, and that is borne out by how much they seemed to like exercise/sports, card and board games, making lunch by themselves, swimming and riding on me, riding their bikes in abominable heat, and making up silly games. All that seemed to matter was that I was available to them. Which leads to…

3) Undivided attention matters. I deleted email and LinkedIn off of my phone and did not check them during the entirety of Daddy Camp; I also took previews off of my notifications and kept my phone on “do not disturb” a lot so I wasn’t checking every news alert. I took some time in the morning and night for catching up on the news, but I was otherwise giving the boys my full attention, and I think they noticed. I found it both difficult and liberating to be logged off for so long. I recommend it as a regular habit.

4) You get back more than you give. I got two requests as Daddy Camp was winding up: a) can we continue it over the weekend (kind of), and b) can we do it next year? That, plus getting unending and adorable requests for playtime, definitely made it all worth it, not to mention just experiencing the sheer joy they experienced during camp, getting to break out of whatever semblance of a routine they’ve had during this shelter at home without school.

5) I am not a young man. I needed a midday nap on the 3rd day and generally needed more of a recharge that I would’ve liked (like my overtaxed smartphone). As much as I want to do every day, my body needs a lot of rest, and I need to manage my expectations of what I can complete in a single day. If I don’t do everything I want to do, that doesn’t mean failure. It means success and the chance to plan for the next day.

6) There is no place in my world for perfectionism. Both boys got very upset, either with each other, themselves, or me, at some point over the three days. Our younger son even said, with a wry smile, that Daddy Camp was “okay,” before asking me to play with him again. I have had to work hard at curbing my perfectionist tendencies — and by that, I mean my penchant for making anything less than “perfection” feel like failure. I now understand how important it is to overcome a “fear of failure” or pursuit of perfection and just try.

7) My kids will barely remember or care about what I did “for a living” but they will vividly remember and care about what I did as their father. Yes, I have to help provide for them, but money is only one of the provisions they need — and much less important than unconditional love.

See you at the next Daddy Camp.

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Dr. Larry Schooler has filed stories for National Public Radio and Voice of America, facilitated interfaith dialogue and served as an ombudsman for the U.S. Department of Defense. He is the author of a manual entitled “Keys to an Effective Public Meeting” and a forthcoming book on truth and reconciliation commissions.

Originally published on Medium.com.