How are you? I am fine. I hate this place and I am having a terrible time. If you don’t come and get me I will die.
I wrote this letter when I was nine and went to camp with my friend Angie. My mother didn’t come and get me. I didn’t die. And that letter hung on the wall of my office when I was a camp director 20 years later.
Learning to live independently is certainly difficult, but parents can help children grow up by encouraging their freedom in appropriate stages. For many children, going to overnight camp is an important step in the process.
If you want that step to be successful, there are a number of things you can do to help.
Start by arranging some preliminary experiences away from home. Overnight visits to grandparents or to friends’ homes are a good way to practice. If your child finds one night away hard, he’ll need more practice before overnight camp.
Before you select a camp, learn as much about it as you can. Be practical: If your daughter is afraid of animals, for instance, she shouldn’t attend horse riding camp. Help her master that fear in more familiar surroundings.
Once you have made your choice, help your child learn as much as she can about the camp. If you can’t visit the camp, find another way to answer your child’s questions. These days most camps have pictures and videos online. Many camps also provide references, so your child might be able to talk with an experienced camper.
For some children, the first camping experience is more comfortable with a friend. I always advised parents to arrange only one buddy. Children who go to camp with a larger group often stick with their familiar pals, missing out on new friendships.
Involve your child in the preparations as much as possible. Ask him to help you review the list of things to pack and make sure he has everything he’ll need to be comfortable. Is there a favorite stuffed animal he’ll want to bring along? My friend Angie brought family photos.
There will be some things the camp asks you not to pack. Help your child stick to those rules and explain their importance: Food attracts rodents, while dampness can harm your iPod. And remember, most campers have limited space.
Once your child is away at camp, sending mail is key to a successful stay. Begin with a letter a day or two before departure so that there will be mail on the first day. Focus on your child’s camp experience and make sure to save any bad news for when she gets home. Care packages are always appreciated. Send something simple, such as Sunday comics or drawings from siblings.
Never warn your camper about homesickness. Parents who say, “Don’t worry if you feel a little homesick. It happens to everyone,” establish that expectation. Some children do feel homesick, but don’t worry—counselors are trained to help. If you get a miserable letter, such as the one I wrote my mother, don’t panic.
If you are really worried, you can always call and ask the camp director to check on your child. Many camps discourage parents from actually talking to their homesick children—it’s very difficult to be firm when there’s a crying child on the other end of the line.
If you do talk with your child, encourage her to stay and certainly don’t tell her you’ll come there. Instead, remind her that you love her very much and that she’ll make friends soon. Tell her you’ll write. I usually found that if I could keep a homesick child at camp for three days, she’d be cured.
Once in a while, a child really isn’t ready for camp. The staff will help you determine whether this is the case. If your child does need to be collected, tell him you are proud of his efforts. Reassure him that even though he wasn’t quite ready yet, you know he’ll succeed in other ventures away from home.