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Parent Resources: How to prepare my new camper for time away from home

I’ve been at this summer camp thing for over 30 years now. My own parents first sent me to an all girls camp for two weeks when I was seven. I BEGGED to go to camp. Deeply Begged. My older sister, Jane, was going and I just knew I could do it too. I have shared before what happened to me during that time, but in a nutshell little Anne went from dying to go to camp to desperately homesick and dying to go home. Every. Single. Day. To the point that I know I drove the camp director absolutely nuts and I inhibited my own experience. Thankfully, I got wise the final three days and actaully starting enjoying myself. To the point that when my parents came to pick me up, I ran away because I didn’t want to leave. Kids.

Needless to say, that first summer converted me. I returned for 10 more summers to my beloved camp and growing from a camper to a counselor to the CIT Assistant and Program Assistant. My camp career has only grown from there. One thing I can say across all of my years of working at camp is that there’s no single prescription for a child’s success at camp. However, there is a clear pattern of ways in which families can best prepare their children for a successful sleepaway camp experience.

Especially among first-time campers, I candidly acknowledge that there’s more nervousness. And that’s amplified if the parents themselves never went to camp. These families share some of the same questions and concerns. It’s most often a short list including:

  • I’m going to miss my parents (my camper).
  • Will they make friends?
  • It’s a long time for my first time away from home (to have them away from home).

These questions and concerns are normal; it’s in how we respond to them that we can build a positive foundation for each camper’s summer camp experience.

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Alida doing the Variety Show with staff support.

Trying their Wings

Even the youngest of campers become strong and empowered through their experiences wrestling with unknowns. This strength of character, known as “grit,” comes from the development of courage and resolve. Last year, my youngest Alida was adament about being a camper. There was just one issue- technically she wasn’t old enough (her birthdate is just past the school cut off date). My husband and I debated this. She had grown up at camp and was familiar with what she was getting into, so we decided to make a “checklist” of things she needed to accomplish in order to become a camper. This included things like dressing herself, brushing her teeth, bathing herself….just some general hygiene essentials. Well, I should have know my girl was going to succeed in checking every item off that list and ensuring she received her end of the bargain….to be a Rookie Camper.

I could tell from afar that camp was going great for Alida up until the last day. I caught a glimpse of her eyes and knew she was tired or something was off. When I had a chance to connect with her counselor, she said…oh she is fine…she is just a bit homesick. Yes…even the camp director’s kids get homesick believe it or not. (Some other time I will go into how my husband and I purposely ignore our own kids at camp so they don’t get special attention. We overheard our middle child tell someone last summer we were his aunt and uncle!).

My point though is even the littles, my own daughter, felt these feels. And in my longing to take her and hug her, I paused and thought: My girl told an adult how she felt. She shared her uncertainty, her counselor comforted her, and she is moving on. She is and will be fine. She is learning GRIT.

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Alida soaring down the slip and slide at camp last summer.

Giving Them Their Wings

We can LOVE our children enough to let them go confidently into their camp experience through four simple strategies that enable them best to demonstrate that courage and resolve.

Listen to what they expresses as questions and concerns.

And speak only to those. But don’t give in to the temptation to raise new concerns they have yet to speak of. Also, avoid over-explaining. I think we can often get into this trap as parents and it only brings new anxieties and stress into your child’s mind. Just Listen to what they are concerned about and respond to those anxieties.

Observe how they processes information and experiences, especially as camp approaches.

Take cues from their behavior and stay steady — avoid overreacting. It’s normal, for example, for an enthusiastic kid to grow a bit more sullen as camp approaches. They may need a simple hug and the words, “I am so jealous of what you’re going to get to do at camp!”

As a parent, I admit I tended to want to react quickly to make sure my children were okay. However, constant checking in with, “Are you okay? Is something bothering you? Are you getting nervous about camp?” tends to heighten anxiety, and sometimes create it where it didn’t exist.

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Validate their concerns, without feeding them.

An honest expression of, “I’m afraid I’m going to miss you too much, mom and dad,” can be affirmed with a simple, “I hope you’ll miss us; we’ll miss you too, and we’ll be so thrilled to know what fun you are having! We can’t wait to hear all about it!” You may or may not get a letter from them during camp. And your letters to your camper must be focused on the positives of them trying out their wings.

I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time a happy, thriving young camper burst inexplicably into tears because a parent’s letter had just arrived listing every dog, cat, neighbor, and treasured stuffed animal who was missing them so dreadfully! It’s a natural instinct to think they need to hear this while they are away. But it’s actually not in their best interest during the first time away in a new place. A much better approach would be “Looking forward to seeing you after your camp adventure and hearing all of your amazing stories!”

Each young child needs to know that they are loved so much as to be given this opportunity to do something that lets them be a “little bit on their own” in a place just for kids. This opportunity to play, to have fun, to make new friends, and to try new things …and to reach goals they’d never imagined!

Validation of concerns and questions is helpful for a child to understand that their feelings are normal, but it is oh-so-important to intentionally focus on what they will accomplish from the experience.

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Equip your camper with tools and strategies for success.

I suggest simple things like having them pick out a family photo for inside their trunk or next to their bed, a treasured stuffed animal for their bunk, or having them write a goal for each day that you place in daily envelopes tucked into their trunk so they can see how much they are accomplishing. These ideas will help your camper take things of comfort and familiarity into a new experience while focusing on the positive outcomes.

Help your child to see that as an adult you’ve done the same. I’ve shared parallel experiences with my kids such as how anxious I was starting a new job, or stepping out in a new role and how much I grew from — and loved — the experience that I would have missed had I not tried something new. Whether for one week or three weeks….each camper is different and their questions and concerns may be equally unique.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to talk about what your child will do if and when they become homesick. Encourage them to talk to one of their counselors, or hug their stuffy, or invite a friend to play a game. This way they already have an idea of what they can do when the feeling hits. It will help take some of that anxiety and unknown away and believe me it will help them move through the experience.

As parents, these four simple suggestions — Listen, Observe, Validate, Equip — will lay a foundation that will set them up for success. Your camper will develop courage, confidence, and resolve that will build their strength of character — true grit! I look forward to supporting all of your campers and especially those first time campers.

LOVE your kiddos enough to let them confidently go to camp!