Summer camp or Alcatraz: It's all about how parents prep kids

When parents plan for their child's first sleep-away summer camp experience, involving kids in the preparations is key. Two seasoned camp directors share their expertise and feedback from campers in getting kids ready.

Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret Morning News/AP/FILE
In this file image, Girl Scout Zoe Kirtz, of Cedar City, Utah, paddles around Lake Brimhall in a canoe during summer camp at the Girl Scouts of Utah's Camp Cloud Rim above Park City, Utah, on June 26, 2007.

Getting your child ready for camp can be challenging, but there are ways to overcome and ensure that they are excited and prepared for their first sleep-away camp experience. Each of these preparation tips is followed by an amusing anecdote, or at least an idea worth sharing with your children. As the days leading up to the big send-off tick away, you will find yourself re-articulating the various reasons why he or she should relish, not fear, the fabulous journey to follow.

Include the child in all camp-related decisions, from the choice of the camp to packing that trunk and duffel. At most camps, it does not matter what you wear. While this might seem a minuscule notion, a child who has confidence she can wear what she wants at camp has one less worrisome detail on her checklist.

Camp is a happy place where mismatched clothing and retro outfits fit right in. One of our counselors wore mismatched socks at all opportunities, not only at camp, but to his own wedding!

Tell some good stories about your own experiences away from home.

The most fun I ever had at camp was the time we were camping out and it rained hard. We all got soaked. Then, the stove would not light, so we ate raw hot dogs followed by S’mores with un-melted chocolate.

Be honest if the child inquires about the negative aspects of being away from home, but re-emphasize the ultimately happy outcomes of the camp experience. Homesickness is like a headache – certainly unpleasant, but short in duration and rarely disabling. Tell them a story like this: 

I know two camp directors who admit to being very homesick themselves as campers. But, at the insistence of their parents, they both stuck it out and ended up not only loving camp but giving their lives to it. Then acknowledge that the two persons are the co-authors of this blog!

Never promise to bring the child home if he or she is not having a good time.

One summer, a child mailed a homesick note the first hour of the session. Whereupon reading the letter, the parents immediately got into the car and drove six hours to gather him and take him home. I said to the mother, “This is a tad premature, would you not agree?”  To which she hollered at me:  “I will not tolerate my son being unhappy.”

Instead, develop a family strategy beforehand that allows for significant time to pass before any final decisions are made regarding going home.  Remember, your children learn by having their boundaries pushed, even if unsuccessfully at first.  Have a frank conversation regarding the unlikelihood of an early pick-up.

Understand that separation anxiety usually is experienced and conquered early in the session and is seldom the result of staying away from home for too long.   

On day number 21, I asked kids to cover their eyes for privacy then raise a hand quietly when I voiced the number which best indicated their honest feelings about camp at this point in time.  “The number one is for those who are wretchedly miserable all the way to number ten for those who feel that camp is now about as good as heaven.” Would you be surprised to know that nearly everyone voted a nine or a ten?

Regarding the impending separation, keep your own emotions under wraps. 

One parent said, “For the first few days after dropping off my daughter, there was a huge hole in my life. I cried, but then on about day number three, I found myself uttering ‘this is not so bad.’”

Go ahead and “soft focus” this expectation to your child and encourage her to do the same at her end.  There is nothing wrong with a bit of transparency.

Rationalize! In nearly all cases, camp is a wonderful growing up experience for your child. Ditto for you, too! Expect to feel a bit low yourself for the first few days. Any sadness passes quickly into an enjoyable vacation from the rigors of parenthood. No feelings of guilt are needed. 

A parent approached me on the last day of camp to say, “Thanks for the most valuable, enjoyable and life-enhancing learning experience of MY life.”

First letters home tend to be not only negative but also full of hyperbole. Laugh off 90 percent of what you read. Do inform the director about that unhappy letter.

One child wrote home, “Thanks  for sending me to Alcatraz.”

Hang on to that letter. Years from now, your child will howl with delight!

When writing letters yourself, acknowledge that you miss your child but stress how boring it is at home – always the truth when compared to life at camp. 

Remind your child, “Well, it is very hot and muggy here at home and nobody is around, especially your friends.”

Be exceptionally careful when deciding to make that first phone call to your child. It you sense that either one of you may break down, call the director instead. Most camp leaders are exceptionally gifted at guiding parents through this dilemma. Trust them.

I told a parent, “ If you call her three days from now, you will be able to say, ‘Your stay at camp is now more than half over.  We’ll be coming up to family visiting day in just ten days.’”

Never overdo the privilege of calling. 

Remember: kids are not sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear from you. They are too busy.

Lastly, if your child is one of those chronic homesick cases, remain upbeat, positive and willing to work with the camp to get that youngster over the hump. Nearly all the time, the final verdict is a positive one. 

One parent wrote, "My child just wrote to tell me the homesickness issue now is past him. Something about his scoring the winning goal in a soccer game and being carried off the field on everyone’s shoulders. Can homesickness expire in a single heartbeat?"


Bob and Rob Wipfler are co-directors of Kingswood Camp for Boys in Piermont, NH. Together they have over 101 years of experience at residential summer camps. This post was reprinted from with permission of the American Camp Association. ©2015 American Camping Association, Inc.

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