How to Help Your Child Have a Great Time at Camp

Bruce S. Muchnick, EdD

A summer at camp is much more than a vacation for children. At camp, kids enjoy the outdoors and develop a greater appreciation for the environment. Campers experience the companionship of other children and acquire skills that improve self-confidence, increase self- reliance, enhance the ability to cooperate with others, and, hopefully, a greater awareness of life that is larger than one’s self.

Hopefully, the acquisition and refinement of such skills will contribute in positive and significant ways to the child’s adjustment and will carry over into his/her adult years.

Camp makes it easy for kids to have fun, relax, let their creative juices flow and experience the spontaneous joys of their childhood years. A summer at camp is often perceived by children, parents, community leaders, clergy and social service agencies as a respite from the strains of everyday family life and the pressures and tensions of school.

To help your child have a successful time at camp this summer...

Think of camp as a learning experience. Sending your children to camp offers a wonderful opportunity for both you and your children to practice "letting go" – which can contribute to the development of healthy independence.

Learning to let go allows children to develop autonomy and a stronger sense of self. It also gives parents a chance to take care of themselves and, perhaps, to get to know each other again. By the time children return from camp, parents will, hopefully, feel refreshed and will be available and accessible to them again.

Don’t buy a whole new wardrobe. Camp is more rugged than life at home. A child doesn’t need new clothes... and having well-worn clothes and familiar possessions will help ease the transition. This is especially important for first-time campers.

Listen to and talk about concerns. As the first day of camp nears, some children understandably experience uneasiness about going off to camp.

Rather than acting on what you believe his feelings to be, ask good questions such as: "We’ve been busy packing your gear. What are your thoughts about heading off to camp in a few days?"

Communicate your confidence in his ability to handle being away from home and remind him about "small victories," successes he has experienced in other situations.

Have realistic expectations. Camp, like the rest of life, has high points and low ones. Not every moment will be filled with wonder and excitement. At times, your child will feel great while at other times he may feel unhappy or bored. And kids may not always get along well with each other.

Try to maintain within yourself and encourage within your child a reasonable and realistic view of camp by mentioning "ups and downs." Opportunities for problem solving, negotiating, developing greater self-awareness and increased sensitivity to the needs of others can help your child cope with successes and failures in everyday life. Resist sending your child off to camp feeling pressured to succeed. The main purpose of camp is to have fun.

When your child is at camp…

Observe camp policy about phone calls. Become familiar with the camp’s policy about phone calls. Many camps, for instance, discourage phone calls during the first 10 days. It often takes kids a week and a half or so to adjust to being away from home. A call from home might disrupt the settling-in process. Furthermore, it may be difficult for you to figure out how your child is adjusting to camp during a long-distance phone conversation.

Communicate in writing. Summer camp offers kids and parents the chance to develop rarely practiced skill- letter writing. Write as often as you want. Keep in mind that this is your child’s connection to home and family.

Your letters should be upbeat. It’s fine to write that you miss your child, but don’t include things like The house is so quiet without you. Ask specific questions in your letters about your child’s activities... bunk life... friends, etc. This will help him organize his letters home.

Packages are appreciated every now and then. But don’t send food. It’s disruptive if some kids in the cabin receive food packages and others receive nothing. Receiving food packages may also be contrary to camp policy. If your child asks you to sneak food packages, don’t. Even if you think the rule is ridiculous, breaking a camp rule may really be confusing to your child and interfere with your child’s sense of right and wrong. Instead, send postcards, cartoons, newspaper and magazine articles, comics, game books, puzzles and other items that can be shared with friends.

For example, if your child protests say something like “I understand that you’re hungry. That’s why you have three great meals each day and snacks. I’ll send you some comic books. Hope you enjoy them. Why don’t you share them with your bunkmates?”

Don’t make major changes at home. This is not the time to reconfigure your marital relationship, move to a new neighborhood, sanitize or gut and redecorate your child’s room or get rid of his fossilized frog collection. When most kids return from camp, they like to find things exactly as they had left them.

Help your child cope at camp. Most kids need a few days to adjust to life at camp and being away from home. During this time, kids miss their parents, pets, friends and familiar surroundings.

Most kids cope with these concerns and with the help of camp staff build support systems. If your child’s letters contain urgent pleas for you to bring him home, resist the temptation to rush to camp. Avoid making deals, such as “Give camp one more week. If you’re still unhappy, we’ll bring you home” or “If you stick it out for the rest of the summer, we’ll buy you a new bike.” Support your child’s efforts to work out problems with the help of the director and the camp’s staff.

Communicate your love and confidence in your child’s ability to work through problems. Remind him, if necessary, that he has made a commitment for the summer. Overcoming a longing for home, dealing with upsets in the cabin and learning to care for oneself are important challenges to be faced at camp.

If you sense legitimacy in your child’s complaints, talk candidly with the camp director. Allow the director and staff an opportunity to apply their expertise in helping your child adapt to the routines of camp life. Follow up with another call a few days later. Most adjustment difficulties can be worked through.

Trust your instincts. The occasional child who is truly not enjoying anything, having a miserable time and not adjusting to camp life at all should be allowed to return home after a reasonable amount of time and effort. Keep in mind that some kids feel guilty when an experience like camp does not work out for them. They may feel they have let their parents down. If your child leaves camp, let him know he has not failed and there will be other summers with other adventures.

When your child comes home…

After a summer of fun, adventure and freedom, fitting back into the family and assuming responsibilities may be a challenge for some kids. Give him time and space for this reentry process. Support the positive changes you observe. Reintroduce "house rules" with patience and awareness that your child has done some maturing over the summer.

Bruce Muchnick, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice based in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is the founder and managing director of Summer Camp Resources, P.C., a group of experienced professionals who provide a variety of organizational and mental health services to camp communities. You can contact the author at brumuch@summercampresources.com.

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