HONESDALE, Pa. — A dozen 9-year-old girls in jelly-bean-colored bathing suits were learning the crawl at Lake Bryn Mawr Camp one recent morning as older girls in yellow and green camp uniforms practiced soccer, fused glass in the art studio or tried out the climbing wall.
Their parents, meanwhile, were bombarding the camp with calls: one wanted help arranging private guitar lessons for her daughter, another did not like the sound of her child’s voice during a recent conversation, and a third needed to know — preferably today — which of her daughter’s four varieties of vitamins had run out. All before lunch.
Answering these and other urgent queries was Karin Miller, 43, a stay-at-home mother during the school year with a doctorate in psychology, who is redefining the role of camp counselor. She counsels parents, spending her days from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. printing out reams of e-mail messages to deliver to Bryn Mawr’s 372 female campers and leaving voice mail messages for their parents that always begin, “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just returning your call.”
Jill Tipograph, a camp consultant, said most high-end sleep-away camps in the Northeast now employ full-time parent liaisons like Ms. Miller, who earns $6,000 plus a waiver of the camp’s $10,000 tuition for each of her two daughters. Ms. Tipograph describes the job as “almost like a hotel concierge listening to a client’s needs.”
The liaisons are emblematic of what sleep-away camp experts say is an increasing emphasis on catering to increasingly high-maintenance parents, including those who make unsolicited bunk placement requests, flagrantly flout a camp’s ban on cellphones and junk food, and consider summer an ideal time to give their offspring a secret vacation from Ritalin.
One camp psychologist said she used to spend half her time on parental issues; now it’s 80 percent. Dan Kagan, co-director of Bryn Mawr, has started visiting every new family’s home in the spring and calling those parents on the first or second day of camp to reassure them.
And while the camp schedule once was sacrosanct, parents are now pulling kids out to act in commercials, compete in gymnastics meets or fill choice seats at baseball’s All-Star Game.
Accommodating parents makes sense, since without happy parents, there would be no campers at all, happy or otherwise. But, treading carefully, some in the camping industry privately worry that meddlesome mothers and fathers seem to have forgotten that one main point of overnight camp is to give children a chance to solve problems without parental assistance.
Starting about seven years ago, camps tried to satiate parents’ need to know by uploading pictures of kids at play daily to password-protected Web sites, a one-way communication tool that seemed to respect the sleep-away tradition of maintaining distance. But such real-time glimpses often aggravate the problem, as the obsessed become obsessed with what they are seeing — or not seeing.
“I have parents calling and saying they saw their child in the background of a picture of other children and he didn’t look happy, or his face looked red, has he been putting on enough suntan lotion, or I haven’t seen my child and I have seen a lot of other children, is my child so depressed he doesn’t want to be in a picture,” said Jay Jacobs, who has run Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, N.Y., since 1980.
“In previous years, parents would understand that we were out in the field with children, and we’d get back to you after dinner when we had freer time,” said Mr. Jacobs, who has fielded inquiries from parents about what day the water trampoline would be fixed and whether a particular child still loved his mother after a promised package failed to arrive. “Now a parent calling at 11 will be off the charts if they don’t have a response by 1 or 1:30.”
Norman E. Friedman, a consultant who conducts training at 44 camps, said parents also take up valuable camp resources by breaking the rules they have tacitly agreed to.
“They’ll give their child two cellphones, so if they get caught with the first one, ‘Just give it up and you’ll have the second one to talk to me,’ “ he said. “That’s widespread, not isolated. I call it fading parental morality. What they’re doing is entering into delinquent behaviors with their children. And what kind of statement is that to a child?”
He and others said parents also frequently send children away without packing their prescribed medication for attention deficits or psychological problems — and without letting camp staff know.
“They keep it as a secret, that the kid was on those medications, so the kid comes to camp and starts acting out in ways directors don’t understand,” Mr. Friedman explained. “Oftentimes they get very aberrant behaviors, and have to hospitalize children.” Only then does the parent mention the underlying issues and unused medication, he said.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist in Massachusetts who consults with residential camps, said they can be among the best places for children to develop social skills and resilience — if only parents allow it.
“If your child doesn’t get the bunk they want or you’re worried that he didn’t get the right camp counselor, if you convey that kind of response — ‘Oh my God, that’s awful, let me call them, it’s so unfair’ — that’s the worst possible response a parent could have,” she said. “But more of that is happening.”
Marla Coleman, a past president of the American Camp Association who has served as a parent liaison at Camp Echo, a sleep-away camp in the Catskills, pointed out that with the proper amount of hand-holding, camp can be as much a declaration of independence for parents as it is for children. “Nobody goes to school for how to send your child away from you,” she said. “We help the parents become independent. And especially post-9/11 in today’s society, that’s definitely a heightened need.”
In explaining parental yearning for frequent contact with their children and reassurances about their safety, Ms. Coleman, whose family owns a day camp where she now works as a parent liaison, quotes Mary Pipher, an anthropologist and the author of “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls” (1994). Ms. Pipher once told her, “It used to be the job of parents to expose their children to the outside world; today, it is their job to protect their children from the outside world.”
Ms. Coleman describes the role of parent liaison as part coach, part advocate, part partner and part medium, channeling a child’s sometimes shaky emotional state to parents.
“When a parent knows there’s a responsible adult who represents all the other adults there, they can relax more and help us do our job more,” she said. “Almost always there’s a huge thank you and learning experience from the parent. They’ve experienced this along with the child, and they’ve grown too. They’ve learned how to separate a little bit better.”
Lake Bryn Mawr Camp has added a second visiting day, designed for children with divorced or divorcing parents, or families with children in more than one camp. To prepare, Ms. Miller sent parents combinations of different letters: one for girls with a bunkmate who has a peanut allergy, one for first-time campers and some that included permission slips for those who wanted to take their daughters off campus.
Stationed at the gate, she would greet each family, have campers paged over the public-address system, then preside over the often-tearful reunions. “Sometimes the kids don’t know which parents are coming,” Ms. Miller said of the second visiting day.
Becky and Drew Picon, who live in Livingston, N.J., spent the day playing basketball and visiting the stables with their 15-year-old daughter, Jaime, who is in her seventh summer at Bryn Mawr.
The Picons acknowledged that they are “demanding parents,” having called camp staff over the years to request a special cereal for Jaime, who rarely ate breakfast before this year; to ask for extra phone calls when she was in the infirmary; to take her off campus one visiting day when they had a scheduling conflict; and to seek advice about problems their son was having at another camp.
And there they were on the phone last week with an 11th-hour plea to come on Sunday, instead of Saturday, when they would be visiting the aforementioned son (they each thought the other had already called).
Mr. Picon, who owns several auto dealerships, remembered calling Mr. Kagan, the Bryn Mawr director, on Jaime’s very first day of camp back in 2001.
“I called the camp at 7 a.m. and Dan answered the phone,” Mr. Picon said. “He said, ‘Jaime’s fine. And are you going to call me every morning?’ “
Anticipating a lecture, Mr. Picon said, “I think I am.”
To which Mr. Kagan, himself the father of three daughters, warmly replied: “Well, do it at this time of day, it’s when I have some free time.”