We are a coed resident camp operating in the mountains. It seems that every summer we have campers who aren’t really ready for the demands of group living in what is the intense social and physical environment that is our camp. We have found that some parents want to send their children because they believe we can help them make the friends they’ve never been able to make at home.
Without being too confrontational and scaring away what might otherwise be great campers, how do we determine whether a child is truly ready for the community living that is our camp?
— Mountain Mavens
You raise an issue that generates a lot of controversy among camp professionals — knowing whether a child is truly "ready for camp!" In some ways camp professionals are the victims of their own marketing in that we believe so strongly that camp is so powerfully beneficial for youngsters that we are sometimes indiscriminate about whom we accept. Couple this conviction with parents who want to believe that camp can somehow magically help their children do at camp what they have never been able to do in their home community, and you have a prescription for denial and sometimes disaster. We want to believe we can deliver this life-changing experience and parents want to believe it, too. After all, most people who work with children tend to be optimists, which is a great trait unless we adhere to it blindly.
Determining Readiness for Camp
The first step sounds like one you’ve already taken, which is to admit that camp is not for every child and that not every child is able to make use of the many wonderful things a solid camp experience can offer.
The second step is to establish common ground with all prospective camper parents. To me the most powerful place to come from with parents is taking care to be sure that a child’s experience at your camp is going to be a happy, healthy and successful one. (I define that success in part as being able to make and keep friends; meet the responsibilities of living in a cabin, bunk or tent; respect the authority of caring-taking adults; freely take advantage of camp activities and work out the normal and expected conflicts that come when a bunch of "brothers" or "sisters" share common space.)
Why is it important to take care in determining whether a child is ready for camp? If we fool ourselves into thinking that a child is ready when they are not, it is the child (and often the other children around them) who pays. A child who comes to camp who is not socially or emotionally ready risks not only being turned off to camp in the future, but they also may suffer from the humiliation of being "a failure" because they "couldn’t make it" at camp. Remember that children tend to think they are what they do, so if they aren’t successful at camp it can, in their mind, confirm a kind of "loser" status for them. Everyone wants what’s best for children, and camp certainly can widen a child’s horizons and add tremendously to their ability to cope in the world and their self-confidence. If a child is not ready for that experience, they may end up miserable and feeling worse off for it.
It is the joint responsibility of the camp director and the parent to make a determination of readiness. In other words, the partnership with parents begins in looking together at what signs might help decide whether a child who has never been to camp before is ready.
So what signs? Last year, I devised a checklist I titled, "Ready, Set, Go!" The list has questions for parents to consider that fall into five general areas — self care habits (like showering or brushing teeth); family relationships (like complying with the requests of adults or accepting help from significant adults); social relationships (like having a best friend, getting invited to play dates or birthday parties, sleeping over at a friend’s house and so on); school (like is your child on an individualized educational plan[IEP]); and overall emotional health (like recovering from setbacks and accepting criticism, etc.).
The gist of the "Family Relationships" section is two-fold. The first is to get a sense of how well the child responds to parental authority or discipline and the second is to see how able the child is to separate from parents. In the "Friendships/Social Relationships" section, the very first question is about a best friend. Having a "best friend" is a good indication that a child is likely to be somewhat independent and socially savvy. In the "School/Activities" section the question about an "IEP" can open a fertile discussion about a child’s particular learning style or temperament, which may be of great value at camp in terms of activities and sensitivities with other campers.
The key to the checklist is to look for a pattern of behaviors or a surfeit of responses that might indicate that a child is either too emotionally immature or not socially well developed enough to handle the rigors of life in a cabin, tent, or bunkhouse. Rather than try to make a determination based on one item or the checklist as a whole, the answers provide an opening for a more in-depth conversation with the parent (and perhaps even the child) about the realities of camp and whether the child will be reasonably able to meet the demands of that reality. Rather than print it out and send it to every prospective camper family, I suggest using it as a guide for a discussion, following such questions as, "Whose idea was it for your child to come to camp?" And, "So has your child ever been to camp before?"
Careful questioning and an open discussion can help parents make the decision with you as to whether their child is ready for the rich, growth-enhancing, and diverse experience of camp.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.
Originally published in the 2010 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.