To mark the start of the school holidays, we take our children camping. We’re joined by friends who have daughters of a similar age to our sons. For two blissful days, the children play in the woods and stream bordering the campsite, out of sight (but never quite out of earshot), while we sip wine and snooze in the sunshine. They return at dusk, grubby and elated, to toast marshmallows and tell ghost stories by the campfire before tumbling into their sleeping bags. This heady freedom, we tell ourselves, is the stuff that childhood memories are made of.
The paradox is that there’s nothing spontaneous about this trip. It’s a carefully choreographed experience in which nothing is left to chance. We book the campsite weeks in advance and hold detailed discussions about the food and equipment that we plan to bring. On the morning of our departure, we park the boys in front of the television and frantically cram holdalls into the roof box, fretting about whether we’ll get away in time to claim the best pitch and avoid the thunderclouds that threaten overhead.
On arrival at our rural idyll, the stage-management continues. The children are plastered in sunscreen and insect repellent. The country ramble through dappled woodland is marked in highlighter pen on the map. The picture-postcard pub where we eat lunch, with its tastefully Farrow-and-Balled dining room, is the product of an evening’s research on TripAdvisor. I’m reminded of Rachel Cusk’s scathingly perceptive description of ‘that family you see out on a Saturday afternoon, with their cycle helmets and their fear of strangers and their fourteen varieties of apple juice in special beakers, [who] wouldn’t stop to help you if you were bleeding to death in the road’.
My urge to create the perfect camping weekend is partly due to the fact that we live in a city, where the ever-present threat of cars and the imagined censure of other parents combine to make us cautious. It would be almost unthinkable to let a six-year-old out to play unsupervised in our street, so we shepherd the boys from football club to play-date. The upshot is that, on the rare occasions when some degree of freedom is possible, it’s hard to relinquish control. Remove the traffic and the need for constant vigilance, and it’s no surprise that my anxiety finds a different outlet, manifesting itself in the kind of meticulous planning more suited to a trek across the Andes than a camping trip in the Cotswolds.
Back at home, most family experiences end up being milked for maximum emotional and educational value. I’m not alone in this. Down at the local park, there’s a whiff of desperation about the father exuberantly chasing his child around the sandpit while impersonating a lolloping yeti; or the mother keeping up a loud commentary on clever Finlay’s attempts to negotiate the monkey bars. We’re incapable, it seems, of just letting our children be – a product, no doubt, of middle-class competitiveness and nagging guilt at working long hours.
That’s why our camping expedition, with its increased scope for benign neglect of the boys, is such a precious interlude. It’s fun for the adults, too. Much as I love my sons and enjoy being around them, their undiluted company is sometimes (whisper it) just a tiny little bit boring. Occasionally, I crave a glass or two of prosecco and an adult conversation rather than, say, the hundredth unanswerable question of the day about Lego or loom bands or Lionel Messi. So why does our trip have to be so carefully stage-managed? Why can’t I shake the superstitious notion that our family life might come crashing down around us like an Ikea flat-pack unless it’s meticulously constructed, with all the nuts and bolts in place? Life is to be lived, not controlled. Sometimes I’d do well to remember that.