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Getting Your Child Ready for Camp

by Bob Ditter, M.Ed., LCSW

Bob Ditter, M.Ed., LCSW

Bob Ditter has worked with children's summer camps since 1982. Read more »

Sorry, Bob Ditter, M.Ed., LCSW is no longer taking questions.

I remember once speaking about camp with parents of a twelve year-old girl I'd been seeing in my psychotherapy practice. The girl had expressed an interest in going to a horseback riding camp in Vermont and the father was balking at the cost. "Two thousand dollars seems like a lot of money to pay for my daughter to learn how to ride a horse!" the father complained.

I sat back for a moment then answered, "If all you think your daughter is going to learn is how to ride a horse, then don't send her!"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

I explained that many parents, especially ones who have never been to camp as children themselves, make the mistake of thinking that camp is about the activities or the facilities. While those are important aspects of camp, that's not what camp is. Camp is about making some of the best friends of your life. It's an exercise in self-reliance and social learning. Kids not only make some of their best friends at camp, they learn what real friendship is.

Since campers live in groups, it is also about learning the give-and-take of making decisions and getting along with all those "brothers" or "sisters" you suddenly inherit when you arrive. In a time when resilience--the ability to stick with something and recover from a setback--is a great quality to cultivate in our children, camp is an increasingly attractive option. I can't tell you how many parents have told me how much more confident, calm, purposeful or focused their children seem after a couple of weeks of camp.

But Are We Ready?

Many parents wonder when the best time is to send their kids to camp. The answer depends on your individual child. There are some six and seven year-olds who march eagerly off to camp without a problem, while some eleven year-olds cower with a fear of becoming homesick. If your child has friends at home and has been able to sleep over at grandma's or a friend's house, they are probably ready for camp. If your child consistently has trouble making or keeping friends, then speak with the Director. While camp is a great place for making friends, don't expect camp to magically do what your child hasn't been able to do at home.

The biggest question to ask is, are you ready as a parent to let your child go? Children are like little membranes--they pick up all of the subtle emotions of their parents. It helps to be clear with yourself about what your child signed up for in the first place, whether it is to make new friends, learn new skills or try out some new exciting activity or program. Think of camp as "life experience with training wheels." Camp professionals have been helping kids separate and become more independent for years. This is their true business. They tell you they teach swimming or arts and crafts or canoeing, but what they really teach is self-reliance and resilience--in other words, coping skills for kids!

Reassure yourself, as a parent, that you've done your job. All the advice, coaching, caring and goodwill you've given your child over the years is in there. Trust the job you have done. Let him try out his wings, even if it means he takes a little nosedive once in a while! You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs!

How Do We Get Them Ready?

I created a few tips for parents to help them and their children get ready for the adventure of camp. They are as follows:

  • Involve them in shopping for camp, maybe even doing some packing together.
  • Pack a favorite personal item, like a T-shirt, cap or small stuffed animal.
  • Have them "practice" showering, sleeping over at friends or relatives and writing letters.
  • Talk with them about the fun things they are looking forward to doing at camp. Watch the camp DVD together.
  • Parents should share stories about their own first times away from home. (Keep it positive!)
  • Parents can point out what a child does well and how that will be an asset at camp.
  • Post a letter to your new camper one or two days before she departs for camp, so that it will be there on her first full day at camp.

It also helps to have a few conversations with your child, before he heads off to meet his new friends. Here are a few things you can say--not all at once, but a little over time in the week before he goes:

  • Every camper is part of a group and as your parents, we expect you to cooperate and help out.
  • If you are having a problem, your counselor is there to help you. Don't wait to tell us, you can tell your counselor. Be honest and ask for what you need.
  • If your counselor doesn't help or is part of what makes you uncomfortable, talk to your Division Leader.
  • Clean-up is part of camp; you do it everyday; we expect you to participate.
  • There are many new things at camp, and you may not like them all or be as good at some as you are at others. We expect you to try!
  • Go about making a new friend or two. If you are timid about meeting someone new, ask about what she likes and be a good listener.
  • Not everyone has to be your friend, and you don't have to be everyone else's friend. If you have one or two good friends at camp, that's great!
  • Have fun and tell us all about it on your first call home!

So, good luck and congratulations on giving your child the "gift" of growing up! It will serve him for years to come.

Sorry, Bob Ditter, M.Ed., LCSW is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Nicole writes...

Hi Bob. You mention that there are some 6 and 7 year olds who're ready for camp. That seems so young to me. I always thought of overnight camp as something for 10 year olds and up.

Are there certain camps that are just for younger kids?

Bob? writes...

Hi, Nicole. Many people are surprised to hear that children as young as 6 or 7 go to sleep away camp. It isn't so much that there are overnight camps that specialize in younger children--although there was a camp in North Carolina years ago called Gwynn Valley Camp that had an animal farm and took children as young as 6! It is more that some camps take children as young as 7--children who have finished the 2nd grade and have the confidence to go to camp for one, two or even four weeks. There are many camps in New York , Penn., and New England that take children as young as 7 and having visited many of those camps personally, I can say those kids do very well. They obviously need a level of care that is greater than older kids, but camps wouldn't have such children year after year if they didn't do well.

Gabby writes...

How old do you think is too old for summer camp? Thanks.

Bob? writes...

Gabby: Some camps take children up to 16, 17 or even 18. The real question is whether your child will fit into a group of children that may have been going to camp for several years. If that is the situation, once girls get to be about 12 or 13, it gets harder to break into an established group. If your child is very confident socially, it may be less of a challenge. (For boys it's about 13-14). I would check with individual camps and see what the directors say.

Gilbert writes...

I think my seven-year-old would enjoy going away to camp a lot next summer (when she's eight). She enjoys a lot of things that she thinks she won't at first. My question is how can I sell her on the idea, as I know sleeping anywhere but home is not something she enjoys the idea of. With a year's lead time, what would be good things to do to prepare her for the summer of 2010?

Bob? writes...

Gilbert: Remember that every child is different and if your child isn't ready at 7 or 8, I wouldn't force the issue. If over a year's time she can successfully sleep over at a friend's house and maybe go to Grandma's, then I'd visit a camp and see if she gets excited by what she sees. A year lead time might be just fine, but don't be disappointed if your child isn't ready until 9 or ten!

Amanda writes...

This I guess is more of a comment than a question. I was reading how Nicole stated that 7-8 seems to young of an age for children to go to camp. My daughter just turned 8 on May 10th and is leaving for her first summer camp trip on Monday. I am so excited for her to experience this because of all the fun and wonderful things that I remember experiencing during my trips to camp as a young girl. It helped with my independence and my "anti-socialness". We moved around a lot when I was young so it was hard for me to put myself out there to make new friends and the friends I would make I never got to keep for long because we would up and move as soon as I did. After camp it didn't matter where we were I was more of a social butterfly so to speak and things were not as scary for me. There was a lot more to it than just making friends though, each child experiences different things and takes hold of different things and I want my daughter to have her chance to take what she can from this experience as well. We received the rules and reg's the other day and we sat down and read them together as part of getting her ready and then read the list of the things she will need while she is away and the expert is exactly right that part of getting them ready is to allow the child to be involved in the packing and shopping for the trip. It builds the excitment and and the suspense for the trip.

Caroline writes...

I was a camp counselor for 9 summers - I heartily agree with Bob on all his points.

I'd like to emphasize that all children 'grow up' at a faster rate at camp. They learn more about themselves; they learn how to do more things for themselves; they become part of the group and pitch in when there is work to be done (like gather firewood) - and they get to experience the pleasure from their efforts (sitting around a campfire!)

I'd like to add - many camps do not let the campers call home. Find out before you mention calling home. And in your letters - try not to emphasize how much you miss them; and do not list all the fun things *you* are doing. Instead - focus on their activities at camp...ask about their new friends...maybe remind them of a talent they have - that they can share with the group (maybe they have a super silly face, or sing well...)

It's been 20 years since I've been at camp. It is still my favorite place on the planet.

Bob? writes...

Caroline: Thanks for sharing those additional tips to parents writing letters to their children at camp! I also am intrigued with your idea that kids "grow up faster" at camp. I like to think that they acquire so much more of a sense of independence--a sense that they can count on themselves. Thanks for sharing! --Bob

Joshua writes...

Hi Bob!

I was so happy to see your article here! This sumer will be my 17th summer working at camps. I'm one of those folks parents send their 8-16 year olds off to the wilderness with.
I've always thought that our younger campers for the most part are much more ready for camp than most of the parents. They have a real need to get out there and prove to themselves and everyone else that they are brave, capable and independent.

Some of our older campers are often a bit harder to hook into the experience, because they feel like they're leaving some of their independence behind and joining a group in which they might have some "real" responsibility. It might actually matter that they don't do their assigned chores because we might get invaded in the night by raccoons as a result. These days they are also very reluctant to give up their "hyper-connectivity" for a week or to. keeping the video games and cell phones out of camp can be a real, but necessary challenge. Camp is about "getting real" with other "real" people.

Camp offers great life opportunities for kids and staff as well. It offers a safe, rich place to stretch and explore who we are as people.

Thanks again for the article Bob! Have a great sumer! Hope to see you at ACA midstates conference next year!

Joshua Ludke
Camp: Wander Wisconsin

Bob? writes...

Joshua: Thanks for your great comments! I think older kids are afraid of loss of their individuality somewhat--that being in a group means compromise and not "having it all their way," which I mention not in a judgmental way but as a real change for them. I also agree with that loss of "hyper-connectivity." Once kids become acclimated to something it's hard for them to adjust to an environment so totally different. But what a gift for them to find out they can! ONce they get past the fear of what they are "missing out on back home," they can do quite well. But I'm preaching to the choir with you! Thanks for your thoughts. --bob

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