Five tips for first-time campers — and their parents

Camp Drop Off signThe first summer at sleepaway camp is a milestone for kids, but it can be just as difficult on the parents.

One moment you are excited to see your child off on an experience that was a highlight of your own childhood, and the next moment you are in the car crying your eyes out wondering how you’ll get through the next few weeks.

Here is the good news: Parents have successfully faced camp separation anxiety before you and others will face it in the future.

Here are five tips on helping your child — and you — prepare for that first summer away home.

There is no “right” age.

What is the right age to get married?

Chances are you do not have a one-size-fits all answer to that question, and it is the same idea with summer camp.

A dry run is a good way to get a sense of what age is right for your child, says Jake Labovitz, camp director and owner of Windsor Mountain Summer Camp in New Hampshire.

Let your child sleep at a friend’s house, or stay with a family friend or a lesser-seen aunt and uncle. It doesn’t matter with whom they stay, the point is to see how your child reacts to sleeping away from home for a night or two.

Labovitz adds to never assume it is too late: “Eleven and 12 is a very common age to start going to camp,” he says.

Look at the big picture.

Unless the sole purpose of your child going to camp is to learn how to ride a horse, then your first question to each camp should not be: Do you offer horseback riding as an activity?

Focusing on single activities is a common mistake many parents make, says Labovitz.

When selecting a camp, start by answering some simple questions through websites like campratings.com. It’ll help you start narrowing the options down by location and types of camps.

If you’re having a hard time going it alone, try consultants or referral agencies.

Once you have your top five, start asking questions.

What is the camp’s philosophy? What is the background in youth development of the camp’s director? How does the camp handle homesickness? Those are a few questions Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camping Association, recommends.

Be honest about homesickness.

Summer camp can be a lot of fun, but letting your child think everything will be perfect is setting him or her up for a massive case of homesickness.

The best way to manage this is to explain that homesickness happens to everyone, and that feeling homesick is OK.

“What’s most important is that you discuss with your child about who they can talk to at camp if they are having a bad day or are really, really, really missing your dog,” Jamie Lake, a camp director of 20 years, writes in Kveller. “Kids should know that the adults at camp — counselors, activity leaders, directors, nurses — are there to help them problem-solve.”

This is a first for parents too.

Being nervous about your child’s first time away from home is natural. But good camp directors are well aware of this and will help you cope.

Even Rosenberg, a former camp director of 27 summers and a father of a 9-year-old boy, admits it’s not always easy for him. While it’s natural to worry about your child, be aware that this is a new experience for you. too.

Resist the urge to make “the promise.”

“With the best of intentions, many parents tell their campers that they will come get them if they are not happy. This is a camp director’s nightmare,” Lake writes.

Labovitz and Rosenberg couldn’t agree more.

“It’s not a smart tactic for first-time parents to give their child that parachute before they set foot in camp,” says Rosenberg. “Giving your child the promise does not invest enough trust in [them, and] it’s a big mistake.”

This promise almost ensures that if those first few nights are rocky, then you’ll be getting a call from the camp director.

Rather than give your child an easy way out, Rosenberg says, do your homework on whatever camp you choose, keep in touch with the director for updates and trust the camp’s staff to tackle any problems that arise. n

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

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