When I was eight years old, my parents sent me away to camp for the first time. I think they needed a break from all my talking! I didn’t want to go, I didn’t know anyone, and I cried all the way on the bus. But when I got to Camp HoneyRock in Wisconsin, I had one of the best experiences of my life. To this day, when I think of camp, I think of afternoons spent learning archery, doing wood-burning crafts, and riding horses, and nights sitting around the campfire, making s’mores and singingKumbaya (that’s not a metaphor—we really did). When I became a parent, I was fortunate enough to be able to send my kids to camp, and now they look forward to sending their own children when they’re old enough.
The benefits of a camp experience are huge: Kids learn new skills, which in turns builds their confidence and encourages them to try other new activities. Camp is a level playing field where everyone is trying something for the first time. The counselors—many of whom attended that camp themselves and love it—can be great role models. Many kids will form lifelong friendships. And let’s not forget the value of giving kids time away from their parents, as well meaning as we think we are!
So how do you find the right fit for your child, and position him or her to have a positive, perhaps even life-changing, camp experience?
2. Consider your child’s temperament. Is he or she ready for sleep-away camp? How does your child do when staying overnight away from you? My youngest never wanted to do sleepovers—I’d get a call late at night saying, “Mom, come get me!”— while my other two had their bags packed from the time they were nine or ten years old. Day camp is a wonderful option for a child who doesn’t want to attend an overnight camp. Sleepaway camp can also seem more appealing if a child goes with a good friend. But sometimes it’s just in how you convey the message; you want to be positive: “You can do this! I have complete confidence in you.” Whether we want to think about it or not, this is actually laying a good foundation for the time when you’ll send that child to college.
3. Do your parental homework. This will be a separation for you, too, so you want to feel good about the environment that your child will be living in for a week or two or more. Know the camp’s philosophy, what they believe in, how are things structured, who’s on staff. And don’t worry: Every camp has a staff nurse who will have your child’s medical history at hand and is ready in case of an (unlikely) emergency.
4. Focus on the fun. If your child is going to overnight camp, keep the weeks beforehand as stress-free as possible. Save the big family vacation for after camp. Use the time to buy supplies and sew the nametags into their clothes; focus on the anticipation of how exciting camp is going to be. If your child has any anxiety, have discussions about that earlier than later.
5. Take your child on the shopping spree. The camp will undoubtedly provide a list of items your child will need. I’d counsel against buying any new clothes for camp, since they certainly won’t come home in the same condition! But I would suggest sending your son or daughter with an inexpensive camera, since—thankfully—most camps won’t allow them to bring cellphones. The shopping trip is almost guaranteed to stoke your child’s excitement.
6. Send a care package ahead of time. Nothing makes kids happier than finding something waiting for them upon arrival at camp. The package can include things as simple as bug spray or Rice Krispies squares. Add some photos and a letter, but keep it light and funny (even if you’re crying your eyes out!).
7. Make the drop-off short and sweet. I’m not good at good-byes—okay, I’m usually flailing on the ground—so I’ve learned that doing it quickly is best. Get the kids settled in, give them a hug and a kiss, and bolt. The sooner kids can engage, meet their cabin-mates, and get to know their leaders, the sooner they can immerse themselves in the camp experience.
8. Don’t fret if you don’t hear. What, you’re not receiving a letter every day? Don’t take it personally, and don’t call the camp to ask, “Are they okay?” (Yes, I’ve done that.) Even if they’re sending home sad, sad letters about the food or the bugs, chances are they’re actually having a good time. The people who work at camps are really good at what they do; I never met a camp counselor I didn’t love. They’re experts, and they’ll let you know if anything is amiss.
9. Cool it on the correspondence. You also do not need to write your child every day. You don’t want to give them the impression that you’re not okay, and that they have to worry about you. Besides, they should be spending more time outside cavorting than inside writing letters.
10. Look ahead to next year. Chances are good that your child will come home crowing about their great time at camp, and how they can’t wait to go again next summer.
After a few more summers, who knows? Your son or daughter may be eager to become a counselor—then they can share the joy with a whole new batch of first-timers.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.