It is probably difficult to imagine, as you scan the "packing list," count socks, get the trunk out, and make sure your child's name is on everything they are taking, what your son or daughter might be like when they come home from the summer adventure at camp—the adventure for which you are working so hard to get them ready. Indeed, for many parents the send off requires enough emotional and logistical effort that there is no time to think about where all this work might lead. So allow me to give you some idea of what to expect on the other end of the calendar when your child returns from camp. It just might help, as you get them ready, to have a "big picture" reminder of what this endeavor is all about.
Expect your child to be tired. Not just physically tired, but emotionally tired. You see, camp in its best form engages children not just in activities, but as active members of a community. What does this mean? You child is about to acquire several "brothers" or "sisters" they will then have to share everything with—personal space; the counselor's attention; time; fun; laughter; decision-making; clean-up (yes, chores!); some of their own personal possessions; and each other's friends. This requires a level of negotiating and give-and-take that most children do not experience in any place but camp!
This experience alone pays dividends. I have parents who have told me their child was so much more cooperative at home after camp. Or that they got along better with their siblings after camp. Or that they now eat a broader range of foods or keep their room clean. Perhaps the most common comment I hear is that their children seem somehow calmer after coming home from camp, which almost seems puzzling to some parents. Where does this calm come from? Once you have the knowledge that you can successfully handle yourself—that you can negotiate with your peers and hold your own and compromise and find out it's just fine—it gives you a sense of confidence that is, well, just calming.
Your child may also be a bit sad after camp. If camp is anything, it is intense. Many children make some of their best friends at camp. Leaving that rich social environment where you learn you can do things of which you never thought you were capable imparts a temporary emptiness. I call it the August blues. Oh, after a good sleep and a nice dinner (and a few electronics), they'll perk up. My advice to you as a parent is, keep that first day or two after camp a bit low key. Have it be a time of family reunion. The stories and the songs and the sayings and the new wisdom will gradually come out, and as they do, it is as if your child will suddenly realize all that she has brought home from her camp experience.
And as they reminisce, you may find yourself surprised at the mature young person you are listening to, asking yourself, as many parents have told me they ask themselves: "When did she get so grown up?!" At camp, of course!
Bob Ditter is a child, adolescent, and family therapist in Boston, Massachusetts.