Getting Your Child Ready for Camp

Filed under: Activities: Big Kids, Activities: Tweens, Activities: Teens

camp

I remember once speaking about camp with parents of a 12-year-old girl I'd been seeing in my psychotherapy practice. The girl had expressed an interest in going to a horseback riding camp in Vermont and the father was balking at the cost.

"Two thousand dollars seems like a lot of money to pay for my daughter to learn how to ride a horse!" the father complained.

I sat back for a moment then answered, "If all you think your daughter is going to learn is how to ride a horse, then don't send her!"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

I explained that many parents, especially ones who have never been to camp as children themselves, make the mistake of thinking camp is about the activities or the facilities. While those are important aspects of camp, that's not what camp is. Camp is about making some of the best friends of your life. It's an exercise in self-reliance and social learning. Kids not only make some of their best friends at camp, they learn what real friendship is.

Since campers live in groups, it is also about learning the give-and-take of making decisions and getting along with all those "brothers" or "sisters" you suddenly inherit when you arrive. In a time when resilience -- the ability to stick with something and recover from a setback -- is a great quality to cultivate in our children, camp is an increasingly attractive option. I can't tell you how many parents have told me how much more confident, calm, purposeful or focused their children seem after a couple of weeks of camp.

But Are We Ready?

Many parents wonder when the best time is to send their kids to camp. The answer depends on your individual child. There are some 6- and 7-year-olds who march eagerly off to camp without a problem, while some 11 year-olds cower with a fear of becoming homesick.

If your child has been able to sleep over at Grandma's or a friend's house, he or she is probably ready for camp. If your child consistently has trouble making or keeping friends, then speak with the director. While camp is a great place for making friends, don't expect camp to magically do what your child hasn't been able to do at home.

The biggest question to ask is, are you ready as a parent to let your child go? Children are like little membranes -- they pick up all of the subtle emotions of their parents. It helps to be clear with yourself about what your child signed up for in the first place, whether it is to make new friends, learn new skills or try out some new exciting activity or program.

Think of camp as "life experience with training wheels." Camp professionals have been helping kids separate and become more independent for years. This is their true business. They tell you they teach swimming or arts and crafts or canoeing, but what they really teach is self-reliance and resilience--in other words, coping skills for kids!

Reassure yourself, as a parent, that you've done your job. All the advice, coaching, caring and goodwill you've given your child over the years is in there. Trust the job you have done. Let him try out his wings, even if it means he takes a little nosedive once in a while. You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

How Do We Get Them Ready?

I created a few tips for parents to help them and their children get ready for the adventure of camp:

  • Involve them in shopping for camp, maybe even doing some packing together.
  • Pack a favorite personal item, such as a T-shirt, cap or small stuffed animal.
  • Have them "practice" showering, sleeping over at friends or relatives and writing letters.
  • Talk with them about the fun things they are looking forward to doing at camp. Watch the camp DVD together.
  • Parents should share stories about their own first times away from home. (Keep it positive!)
  • Parents can point out what a child does well and how that will be an asset at camp.
  • Post a letter to your new camper one or two days before she departs for camp, so that it will be there on her first full day at camp.
It also helps to have a few conversations with your child, before he heads off to meet his new friends. Here are a few things you can say -- not all at once, but a little over time in the week before he goes:

  • Every camper is part of a group and, as your parents, we expect you to cooperate and help out.
  • If you are having a problem, your counselor is there to help you. Don't wait to tell us, you can tell your counselor. Be honest and ask for what you need.
  • If your counselor doesn't help or is part of what makes you uncomfortable, talk to your division leader.
  • Clean-up is part of camp; you do it everyday; we expect you to participate.
  • There are many new things at camp, and you may not like them all or be as good at some as you are at others. We expect you to try!
  • Go about making a new friend or two. If you are timid about meeting someone new, ask about what she likes and be a good listener.
  • Not everyone has to be your friend, and you don't have to be everyone else's friend. If you have one or two good friends at camp, that's great!
  • Have fun and tell us all about it on your first call home!
So, good luck and congratulations on giving your child the "gift" of growing up -- it will serve him for years to come.

This article was originally published on PBSParents and was written by Bob Ditter. Bob is a senior level clinical social worker who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of children, adolescents and their families. He maintains a clinical psychotherapy practice in Boston, Massachusetts, and consults nationally with agencies that work with young people, including the Salvation Army, the Girls Scouts of America, the YMCA, the American Camping Association, Jewish Community Centers, Sea World (Busch Entertainment), the Disney Channel, private and public schools, and others.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.