by Bob Ditter, L.C.S.W.
Sending your child away to camp for the first time is a major milestone for most families, one that is often marked by excitement, anticipation, and perhaps even some anxiety. Though camp is certainly about making friends and having fun, it is also about being on your own and being a part of a community. One of the most important things you as a parent can do to help prepare your child for both these aspects of camp is to talk with your child about it before he/she goes. In fact, it may be better to have several occasional, shorter talks rather than one long conversation as children often absorb more when there is less to think about at one time. I also find that children do better with this sort of conversation if it is part of a more general conversation and if it is part of a pattern of talking, either at the dinner table or while riding in the car doing errands.
The following are some sample topics for discussion that will help prepare your child emotionally for their big adventure:
Camp is not anything if it is not about making new friends. If you are shy about meeting new kids, then learn to get to know others by being a good listener. Remember also that not everyone in your cabin, bunk, or group has to be your friend, and you don’t have to be everyone else’s friend. As long as you treat others with respect and they do the same with you, then having one or two friends at camp is fine. If you have more, then that’s great!
There are many exciting things to do at camp, many of which you may never have tried before. If your child tends to be a bit homesick or worried about being homesick, remind him/her about the excitement of going to camp: Remember, when you first decided to go to camp, what made you so excited? You may not like all the activities, or you may be better at some than others. That’s normal. I, however, hope you are willing to try. The more you put into camp, the more you will get out of it!
You, like every other camper there, will be part of a cabin, bunk, or group. As your parent, I hope you will cooperate with others and help out. That’s part of what makes camp so special — kids helping each other out. Most kids will help you if you are friendly and help them.
Give yourself time. One thing about camp is that almost everything is new — the kids, the activities, the routines, the bed you sleep in, the bathroom. It takes a few days to get adjusted, so be patient with yourself. Most of the time you will be having so much fun you won’t mind all the changes, but if you do, remember that you will get so used to things that by the time you come home you will miss all those things!
Camp is about fun, but it also requires that you help out. Clean-up is part of camp. You do it every day! As your parent, I hope you will cooperate!
Everyone has good days and bad days. If you are having a problem, your counselor is there to help you! You don’t have to wait to tell us if you are upset about something. After all, if your counselor doesn’t know what might be troubling you, he/she can’t help you. Be honest and ask for what you need. If your counselor doesn’t seem to be concerned or doesn’t help you, then you can go to the unit director, head counselor, etc. Parents should know who these “back-up persons” are and how their child will recognize them if they need to.
It’s a great thing to remind your first-time camper about his or her strong points. I would focus not just on what they do well, but their positive qualities as well, such as what makes them a good friend or the type of person other kids would want to know. Helping children identify their strengths can help them when they are having a setback — one of those inevitable growing pains all children have from time to time.
Talking with your child about these kinds of issues is a great way to show support as your child gets ready to take this important step on the road to being more resilient and self-reliant. For you as a parent, it can give you more peace of mind as you allow your child to participate safely in a broader world.
To learn more about camp and child development, please visit the American Camp Association’s Web site: ACAcamps.org, or call the toll-free number, 1-800-428-CAMP (2267).
Bob Ditter is a child and family therapist living in Boston who consults extensively with people who work with children. He was special consultant to the Disney Channel for their series “Bug Juice.” Ditter has visited over 500 children’s camps in the United States, has been quoted in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Parent Magazine, and the Ladies Home Journal. He has appeared on “The Today Show” and the “Evening News with Peter Jennings” and is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on camp.
Originally printed in CAMP Magazine, reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association; © 2006 American Camping Association, Inc.