Last summer, my kids did something they had never done before: went to sleep-away camp. You know, the kind with cabins, canteens, and lots of bugs and dirt. I must admit, I was a bit apprehensive about shipping all three of them off at once. I mean, what if they got homesick? What if I got “kid sick?” Nonetheless, they were begging — no, pleading — to go, so we packed their bags and off they went — for seven whole days. Did they get homesick? No! In fact, they were having so much fun they didn’t want to come home!
“Summer camp, especially sleep-away camp, is often a wonderful, growth-filled, learning experience,” said Doron Krakow, national director of Young Judaea Camp. Parents, however, often underestimate the benefits of camp and what it will do for their children.
“Some parents may think their money is better spent elsewhere than on camp fees, particularly if they themselves were not at camp as a youngster,” says Krakow. But a camp experience will provide your child with invaluable life lessons, such as how to be responsible, solve problems, and get along with others.
So how do you go about finding the right camp? First, talk it over with your child. What are his interests? Does he like softball? Soccer? Music? The performing arts? Finding a camp with activities your child will enjoy is important. At the same time, encourage him to try new things.
“Just because [your child] is a soccer junkie doesn’t mean he might not like — or won’t be good at — arts and crafts,” says Krakow. “Camp is a great place to try something different, because everyone is having new experiences.”
Once your child has decided upon the type of camp he wants, explore the options. Find out about the various programs each one offers and ask plenty of questions. According to Krakow, most parents find out whether there’s quality instruction and enough time for their child to participate in the said activity, and stop there. But, he says, parents should take a look at the big picture.
“Probe to learn about other segments of the program,” he recommends. “What concepts or philosophy does the camp espouse? What type of child does it attract? What will my child do through the course of a typical day?” If the camp has a brochure, read it carefully. This way you can match your agenda with that of the camp’s and provide the experience you want for your child.
Not sure if your child is developmentally ready for camp? Have a trial run. Send him to visit a relative for the weekend. How did he do away from home? Did he sleep well? Was he able to care for himself (brush his teeth, taking a bath, change his clothes)? Did he adjust to new or different foods? These and other questions will help you decide if your child is ready for camp.
Even if your child did well on a trial run, spend a few minutes talking with the camp director. Tell him about your child — how he interacts with other children, his level of participation in school, etc.
Above all, don’t let your own apprehensions keep you from sending your child to camp.
“If you keep him home because of your anxiety about separation, you’re short-changing him,” says Krakow. “If your youngster is asking to go away to camp, chances are he is ready.”
On the first day of camp, help your child get settled, then leave.
“Don’t stick around too long,” says Krakow. “If you drive your child to camp, he may cling to you on the way up. Remember, this is something new, and it’s natural — even for a veteran camper — to be a little hesitant.” Once there, however, many kids will shift from clingy to embarrassed in front of their friends, and parents are often slow to pick up on this.
Even before you send your child to camp, mail him a letter. This way he’ll have something to open when the mail arrives on the first day. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — a note saying you’re thinking of him and hoping he’s having a good time will do. If you do not have time to write every day, that is OK. Just try to write as often as you can.
When my kids went to camp, I sent them notes every other day, and included jokes and riddles. And their father, who is a great cartoonist, drew pictures with captions for them, too.
Although I was faithful at letter writing, my kids weren’t. All week long I waited for something — anything — but received nothing.
“If your child is a poor correspondent, don’t take it personally,” says Krakow. “Camp is a full-time job for kids. Some may be inclined to share it all with their parents, others will get so caught up in the moment that promises to write are forgotten.”
A good rule of thumb is, “No news is good news.” In other words, if you don’t hear from your child, it probably means he’s having a great time and enjoying his newfound freedom.
Whether your child goes to camp for one week or the whole summer, send a care package. Chances are, the other kids will get one and you don’t want your child to feel left out. The package doesn’t have to be extravagant, just something to let him know you’re thinking of him. Items could include: a yo-yo, his favorite magazine, a pack of gum, candy, or some other goodie. Just be sure that if you’re sending food items, you know what the rules are about food in cabins. Camps often don’t allow food in the cabins because they can attract bugs, raccoons, and other outdoor creatures.
When preparing to send your child to camp, avoid purchasing new clothes unless he really needs them. Chances are, they’ll get soiled, stained, or mildewed before they get home — if they even get home! Economically speaking, you’re better off rounding up old clothes and shoes (towels and wash clothes, too) and saving the new items for after camp.
Several weeks before your child attends camp, keep his schedule open and stress-free. This will allow him plenty of time to relax and prepare for the big event. If, for example, your family comes back from a vacation on Friday and you scoot your child off to camp on Sunday, he may experience some anxiety and tension. A better idea is to plan major summer events with a break in between.
On the last day of camp, arrive on time, and come prepared with a few extra plastic bags. You may need them, especially if your child has wet clothes or muddy shoes that need to be transported.
On the ride home, listen to your child. More than likely he’ll be eager to share his experiences with you — who he met, what he did, and the funny things that happened. And if you look real close you may find that he’s grown a little. Not just in height, but in depth of character. Camp has a way of helping kids grow — by boosting their self-esteem, increasing their sense of responsibility, and helping them mature in their relationships with others.
Who knows? Your child may even greet you with the same words mine did: “Hey, Mom! Camp was so much fun. Can I go again next year?”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.