Your behavior plays a key role in ensuring your child's first time away from home at summer camp is a positive experience. In fact, the whole family gets involved – because it’s a big adjustment for everyone, not just the camper.
by Christina DiMartino
It’s hard to tell who is more nervous, your child who is going away to camp for the first time—or you! Separation can be difficult for children and parents alike during this key transition in parenting children.
Being aware of the issues that can surface can help both you and your child to be better prepared and able to fend off some problems that may occur around your child’s first leap to overnight camp. And this awareness helps to make that first time at camp a great time.
Start with child’s readiness
The first step comes before you’ve even started researching camps: ascertaining whether your child seems to be ready or not.
In Holly Bennett’s article for Today’s Parent, “Overnight Camp,” Ellen Nash, past president of the Ontario Camping Association, is quoted as saying, “Around age 9 or 10 is ideal for many kids to begin to go to camp. Twelve is sort of the top end. There should be some signs that they are becoming a little more independent. Do they like being with groups of kids? Are they comfortable sleeping over at other kids’ houses? Those are good signs. And if you feel your child is ready, it helps to reinforce that feeling for her. Show your confidence that she can manage.”
Involve your child in the camp selection—not in the detailed nuts-and-bolts research that you as a concerned parent will be carrying out, but in choosing between the two or three camps you’ve vetted as excellent choices.
A life experience
Bob Ditter, a child, adolescent and family therapist, consults with youth agencies throughout the U.S., including the American Camp Association (ACA), a community of camp professionals who share knowledge and experience to ensure the quality of camp programs. He says when a child goes off to camp for the first time, everyone in the family grows from the experience, not just your courageous camper.
“You wouldn’t be considering camp if you didn’t think it would add substantially to your child’s growth and development,” says Ditter. “And although camp can help him learn a better backhand in tennis, acquire a stronger stroke in swimming or improve a skill in just about any physical endeavor, the true payoff of camp will be apparent when he comes home more self-reliant, self-sufficient and self-confident. What a gift to give to your child!”
Ditter adds that nothing takes more trust than giving your child over to the care of other adults. Finding this trust, letting your child see that trust, and letting her go off on his own adventure with your blessing all take courage. Take comfort in knowing she is about to enter a safe place that will help her widen his horizons, develop greater coping skills, and become more resilient, just as it will you.
Homesickness is normal
Homesickness is the natural result of separating from home and loved ones. The ACA reports that nearly 96 percent of all boys and girls who were spending two weeks or more at overnight camp reported some homesickness on at least one day. Almost all children—and grown-ups—feel homesick when they’re away from home. People’s feelings simply vary in intensity.
Several factors can put children at greater risk for becoming homesick:
Most feelings of homesickness are not problematic. In fact, missing home isn’t a problem until it becomes a preoccupation. When the feelings of sadness and anxiety associated with missing home become so strong that making friends, having fun, sleeping, eating, and participating in activities is difficult, something must be done.
At-home homesickness prevention strategies:
Homesickness interventions for kids at camp:
Family behavior is key
The Ontario Camps Association (OCA) is a voluntary, non-profit organization that draws its membership from camps, individuals, and like-minded organizations and agencies. In an article posted on their website, “Preparing the Family for Summer Camp,” Dr. Stephen Fine says going away to camp is a family event.
“Parents’ behavior plays an important role in ensuring a successful first time away,” says Fine. “How you portray camp in the weeks leading up to departure is central to your child’s adjustment. Be positive, encouraging and never make a deal for an early pick-up from camp. ‘Pick-up deals’ should never be seen as an incentive. They are a guaranteed recipe for failure.”
The family’s comfort level with a period of separation from their child can also be moderated by a vacation, special project, or business travel to keep you engaged while your child is at camp.
“If you made the decision for overnight camp as a family then stick with the commitment,” says Fine. “Just let your child go and have a good time.”
Christina DiMartino has been a freelance and assignment writer since 1985. She is a researcher, interviewer, writer, editor, and manuscript collaborator with a repertoire of clients from around the world.