Why I Lied to Get My Daughter into Summer Camp

Like all lies, mine began in desperation. We’d just moved from Boston to Washington, DC, for the summer, and my husband, Michael, would be putting in twelve-hour days while I worked part-time and cared for our two young children.

Our son was set. At six and a half, William could attend summer camp at a school near our house. Finding care for our daughter, Jessie, wasn’t so easy. She was a few months shy of the three-and-a-half-year cut-off most summer camps required. And the part-time spot I’d found in a small daycare had fallen through the day we got to DC. There wasn’t a daycare in the DC-metro area with an opening — believe me, I checked.

And so, sitting in our rental house, surrounded by unpacked suitcases, with nary a grocery in the fridge, a familiar playmate to be found, or a neighborhood babysitter to be hired, I was suddenly aware of how far from home we truly were.

With rising panic, I emailed William’s camp. How easy it would be: One drop-off and pick-up spot just a half-mile from our house. Was it even possible? The reply came instantly: “If your camper is 3.5 years old and fully potty trained, then yes!”

My heart caught in my throat. Jessie was many things, but she was neither three and a half nor fully potty trained.

I called Michael to see what he thought.

“Just lie,” he said, nonchalantly.

“Just lie?” I yelled, moral outrage flaring. “I can’t just…” I stopped mid-sentence, the dark alternative — hours on end with a young child, who’s latest game was “acting like a baby,” while I tried to work — spun in my head. I was lost. I was alone. I was desperate. So, I took my husband’s advice and responded to the camp’s email: “She is!” I wrote. “Sign her up!”

In a week, I’d be dropping her off. There was no time to waste. When Jessie woke from her nap, I ripped off her Pull Up and said, in my best fake-happy voice, “Big news, Jess! No more Pull Ups! And every time you go on the potty, I’ll give you a Hershey’s KISS!” She looked at me quizzically, her thumb still in her mouth. “O-thay,” she said.

For the next six days, we would wait in restroom lines all over our nation’s capital. Jessie would wet her pants in the local library, on the playroom floor of our rented house, on a big fire truck at the neighborhood playground (Michael dutifully sanitized the structure with no fewer than ten diaper wipes), and in line at the hot dog stand outside the National Museum of Natural History. Each time, I would reach into my bag and fish out a pair of dry underwear. At night I’d lay awake thinking, “What kind of mother lies about her child’s age on a camp form, then goes kamikaze-potty-trainer on her — all after moving her to a strange new city for the summer?”

Yet, amid the accidents, there were small triumphs. In the evenings, Jessie, splayed out on the sofa, would yell, “I have to pee!” and we’d jump up and run with her to the bathroom. As Michael and I cheered, William would fly off to the kitchen to secure a morsel of chocolate from the rapidly dwindling Hershey’s bag. By the end of the week, Jessie was easily eating six KISSES a day and had a semi-permanent ring of melted chocolate around her mouth. But could she execute her emerging skill without us?

On the first morning of camp, my heart pounding, I walked up to Jessie’s head counselor and told her we’d just moved from Boston and the transition had been tough. Then I leaned in close and whispered, “She might have a few accidents.”

“Don’t even worry about it!” she said. “Just pack extra clothes.”

I smiled, certain she could see through me. Then I hugged the kids hard and slunk away.

That afternoon, I was the first parent to arrive in the pick-up line. William’s group came out first, and he slid into the car and peered at me from under the brim of his baseball cap.

“How was it?” I asked, prepared for wails of homesickness.

Instead, he beamed. “I loved it.”

“Really?” I chirped. “Loved?

“Yep. Loved.

Well, OK, then, I thought. Instance #1,394 of “Your Children Will Surprise You.” Just when you expect the worst — that they can’t hack it, keep up, roll with it, you name it — they demonstrate just how resilient, how bounce-backable, how perfectly fine they really are. The kids, I was coming to realize, were going to be alright.

And then I saw her, my not-really-three-and-a-half year-old daughter, coming down the steps. She had her purple Red Sox cap on over her blond pigtails, her backpack strapped to her small body. And . . . she was wearing the same dry shorts she’d had on that morning!

I was supposed to wait for the counselors to bring her to me, but I opened the car door and ran.

“Mama!” she yelled when she saw me.

“Jessie!” I said into her neck as I hugged her. “Did you have a good day?”

“Yes!” she squealed, hopping up and down as I held her.

“She was awesome,” her counselor said.

And then, as we turned to walk hand-in-hand back to the car, she added, “You’d never know she’s only three and a half!”