Every July, I sport my shades to hide tears, trap my three children in a hug and gulp back fears: What if they break an arm? Or get bullied? What if they need me and I’m not there? Then I’m a waving lunatic until the bus engine roars and—poof—they’re gone to sleepover camp.
I’m a wreck saying goodbye, but with weeks of fun ahead, my kids are excited beyond belief. Once upon a time, though, they were nervous to leave the nest. So if you’re about to send your little one to overnight camp for the first time, stay calm and read on. There’s a lot you can do to prepare your kids (and yourself!) for the best summer of their lives.
Is it time?
“Most kids test the camp waters between the ages of seven and nine, with the bulk going after grade three,” says Mark Diamond, co-director of Camp Manitou in Parry Sound, Ont. Birth order tends to affect camp readiness, he says. “It’s a classic pattern. Parents are protective of the first-born, but then they let younger siblings jump on the bandwagon early.”
Sleepovers at Grandma’s or a best friend’s house are a good separation test, but be casual about it, Diamond says. “Tell your child: Do your best, but if you call us at 2 a.m., that’s a great first try!” While overnighters aren’t the same as weeks away, kids find camp nights less scary than you’d think. “In a cabin full of friends and counsellors, they often feel safer than in someone’s big house.”
How to get involved
“You prepare kids for camp by involving them,” Diamond says. “If they feel part of the decision and getting ready to go, they’ll feel more at ease when they get there.” Give your child a taste of camp by checking out brochures, websites and online videos together. Some camps also have pre-season activities or a weekend stint for future campers.
Some camp directors will even meet with you and your child. That’s where you’ll learn everything from where the showers are located to whether iPods are allowed—and get a chance to share your child’s specific needs. “If your child is a vegetarian or scared of the dark, tell us. The better we get to know him, the more secure he’ll feel,” says Diamond.
Then it’s time to nail down specifics—deciding how long to go for and whether to sign up with friends. While some camps offer one- or two-week stays (often with an option to continue), others require a month-long commitment. As for buddying up, most kids come to camp with a pal or two, but loading a cabin with too many friends can backfire, sparking jealousy and exclusion dynamics, Diamond says.
Claudia Cytrynbaum sent 11-year-old Ben to camp without a buddy in tow. “We wanted him to make a new set of camp friends.” Most camps will hook you up with a couple of cabin mates in advance if you ask, says Diamond.
Once you’re signed up, the hands-on fun begins—starting with a family shopping trip. The packing list is loaded with goodies, including stationery (don’t forget self-addressed stamped envelopes!) and a lockbox for private stuff. Get kids involved in packing, too. “Let them stick on labels, and toss in a favourite pillow from home,” says Diamond. “That way they get familiar with what’s in their bags and start getting excited for what’s ahead.”
Even camp-ready kids have misgivings. The most important message your child needs to hear is that you have faith in her. “Don’t try to talk kids out of fears,” Diamond warns. Instead, explain that it’s natural to be scared when you go somewhere new, but that you have confidence in her ability to handle it.
If your child has concerns, you want her to voice them—at home and away. “Kids should feel they can come to an adult with anything and they won’t be judged,” says Diamond. “You’d be surprised what kids worry about.”
Sharon Neiss-Arbess’s son, Adam, was seven and packing for his first camp experience when he confided he was scared to be teased if he brought his teddy bear. “We told him that, absolutely, teddy bears are welcome at camp, and he felt so much better,” the Toronto mom of three recalls. Neiss-Arbess’s daughter, Olivia, wondered how she was going to find the dining hall. Ben Cytrynbaum, the only kid from Montreal in his cabin, was afraid he might get lonely.
Kids’ concerns prompt valuable discussion, Diamond says, helping them think about what to expect at camp where, just like at home, they may run into problems or feel sad sometimes. “Sadness is a part of life, and homesickness is a normal feeling.”
Plus, campers will have dynamics—both good and bad—with each other. Again, that’s normal, says Diamond. “You’re not going to like or be liked by everyone, and kids have to learn to work that out.”
We want our kids to be alright without us, but it’s natural for parents to worry, too. That’s why Diamond recommends Michael Thompson’s book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help A Child Grow. The author, a champion of sleepover camp, explains how being away from home—with both the sadness and happiness separation brings—teaches kids the valuable lesson of independence.
It’s also important to let your kid blaze her own camp trail—which will be different from what yours may have been, says Diamond. “Maybe you got bullied or loved waterskiing, but that doesn’t mean your child will,” he says. But it’s OK to chat about what they can expect from you—how often you’ll write, for instance, and what happens if she wants to come home.
“I recommend telling your kids you’ll write twice a week, max,” Diamond says. Too much mail creates expectations and compounds homesickness. And if you get a worrisome letter, feel free to call and check, keeping in mind that chances are your kid is fine.
“You have to trust staff to deal with issues as they arise,” Neiss-Arbess says. “Of course you want your child to speak up if there are problems, like bullying or safety, but you have to let counsellors take over the parenting role.”
And if your child hates camp?
“I promised that if Ben hated it, we would pick him up as long as he gave it at least a week,” says Cytrynbaum. But Diamond cautions against giving kids a time frame to master. “The first time on a bike is also a challenge, and if you say ‘you don’t have to get up when you fall,’ they won’t,” he says. Ask your kid to give it his best try, Diamond says, and if the going gets tough, talk to staff and let them help. If that doesn’t work, parents will be called, but with special attention, kids almost always settle in.
“The less pressure you put on kids to enjoy camp, the more they’ll learn from the downs, enjoy the ups and want to stay,” he says. “And soon, they’ll be counting the days until they can go back.”
A version of this article appeared in our July 2013 issue with the headline “Happy campers,” pp. 44-6.