Sending your child away to sleepover camp for the first time is a major milestone for most families, one often marked by excitement, anticipation, and perhaps even some anxiety. Though camp is certainly about making friends and having fun, it’s 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 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 children do better with this sort of conversation if it’s part of a more general conversation at the dinner table or while riding in the car doing errands. The following are sample topics for discussion that will help prepare your child emotionally for her big adventure:
Camp is all about making new friends. If your child is shy about meeting new kids, help them learn to get to know others by being a good listener. Remember also that not everyone in your cabin 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!
Try New Activities
There are many exciting activities to do at camp, many of which you may never have tried before. You may not like them all, or you may be better at some than others. That’s normal. However, I hope you are willing to try. The more you put into camp, the more you will get out of it.
Learn to Cooperate
You, like every other camper, will be part of a cabin 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. Cleanup is important. As your parent, I hope you will cooperate and lend a hand.
Give yourself time to adjust, too. One thing about camp is that almost everything is new — the kids, the activities, the routines, the beds, the bathroom, everything. It takes a few days to adjust, so be patient. Most of the time, you’ll be having so much fun, you won’t mind all the changes. If you do, remember you will get so used to your new routine that by the time you come home, you will miss it.
Everyone has good days and bad days. If you are having a problem, like feeling homesick, your counselor is there to help you. You don’t have to wait to send an email if you’re upset about something. After all, if your counselor doesn’t know what might be troubling you, 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, go to the head counselor. Parents should know who these back-up staff members are and how their child will recognize them if they need to.
This is a good time to remind your first-time camper about his or her strong qualities.
Focus not just on the activities your child does well, but her positive qualities, too, such as what makes her a good friend or the type of person other kids want to know. Helping children identify their strengths gives them strength to fall back on when troubles arise.
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 towards becoming 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.
Bob Ditter is a child and family therapist in Boston who consults extensively with people who work with children. Ditter has visited over 500 children’s camps in the U.S., and appeared print & television. He 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.