By Sara G. Stephens
You are a summer camp believer. You recall your childhood summer camp experiences with fondness, and you may even credit much of your personal growth and independence to this annual adventurous getaway. You want desperately to see your child blossom from a sleepaway camping experience. But your child is dead-set against going. His heels are firmly dug, and he’s not budging on the issue.
So how do you convince him otherwise? Should you even try? Which is the worse outcome: to settle with your child’s fear and chance its taking root to thwart his progress later in life, or to force a situation for which your child is clearly not ready, thereby introducing a whole set of other problems, not the least of which is a parental trust issue?
Here’s what a gathering of Houston child psychologists have to say on the matter.
Be confident that you’re on the right track.
Don’t second-guess or trivialize the benefits of camp just to make it easier to throw in the towel. “Sleepaway camps foster independence, broaden social skills, and help develop a love of nature and the outdoors,” says Clinical Psychologist Robin J. Burks, Ph.D. “Day camps help with these three developmental tasks as well, but not to the same degree as sleepaway camps.”
It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
“The parents’ attitudes and excitement about camp are contagious,” says Julia C. Babcock, Ph.D., private practitioner and Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Houston. “If the parents convey excitement, perhaps recounting their own positive experiences at sleepover camp, the child may become excited, too,” she reasons.
Peter C. Cousins, Ph.D., ABPP, a clinical and family psychologist, agrees that attitude plays an important role in a child’s comfort with such new experiences. “It is helpful if the parent does not share their anxiety about the separation, since anxiety can be quite contagious. If the parent is confident that it is a good thing for the child, then many times children will be fine with it. Children depend on parents to act in ways to protect them, so provided that they have felt protected so far, they will tend to take their cues from their parents for their comfort or wariness with the camp.”
Talk it up.
Now that you’ve got your head wrapped around the right attitude, feel free to let the child-relevant benefits of camp sell themselves. “Talk about the great activities at camp, and encourage your child to try new things and make new friends,” Babcock says.
Take a tour.
Babcock also points out that some camps allow tours before the session begins to help a child feel less anxious and have a visual picture about what his or her week away from home will look like.
Let planning build up the excitement.
Reassuring them that you’re just “window shopping,” involve your kids in the camp selection process. Take the whole family to a summer camp fair, where the children can talk to camp staff, see pictures, watch videos, and get a good feel for the vibe of each particular camp. Then, once everyone has agreed on a potential home-away-from-home, make a list of things you and your child will shop for to prepare for his adventure. “Children can get excited by shopping and packing with their parents,” Babcock says.
Understand their fear, and give them tools to deal with it.
“I think that what can frighten parents and children the most is the possibility that the child will be bullied—and that [would happen] with the parent out of touch for a period of time,” Cousins says. In this case, he suggests that the parent make contact with an adult at the camp to whom the child can go if bullying should occur. “This can reassure children that they will be safe.”
Slow and steady wins the race.
“If a child finds camp truly terrifying, then I would recommend working with the child during the year, by increasing his or her independence slowly,” Cousins says. He adds that a child should already be sleeping in her own room (or at least in a room away from the parent), should have some responsibilities, and should be able to do some of the basics, like getting up on time by herself for school. “If a child is not independent enough for these types of activities, he may not yet be ready for a week away,” Cousins advises, adding that there are several alternatives for kids who are not quite ready for a sleepaway adventure. “Scouting trips are a great way to prepare children, and there are other groups, like Indian Princesses, that do similar things with a parent, which shows kids they can have a good time with Dad away from Mom.”
Many camps offer suggestions and guidelines and even orientation programs to help prepare your son or daughter. “Children as young as seven can enjoy overnight camp if adequately prepared,” Burks says. “She can start out with a low-key camp that doesn’t last as long and is closer to home.”
Arm them with the comfort of familiarity.
Parents can help by letting children know how they will keep in touch with them, Cousins says. Burks suggests letting a reluctant child know she will receive letters from home and telling her she will pack plenty of stationery, pens, and stamps so she can write home as often as she wishes.
“Make sure they have their favorite pillow or other treasured objects, which can serve as a reminder of the security of home,” he suggests. “Of course, sometimes a close friend is available for the first year, which really helps.”
Burks agrees that coordinating with one or two of your child’s friends can make a huge difference and really ease a child’s anxiety about meeting new people. “If your son or daughter has already had numerous sleepovers with friends and managed the separation very well, it can be easier to know that he or she is likely developmentally ready to try that next step, say, of a week-long camp, close to home, coordinated with a friend,” Burks offers.
Know when to back down.
Summer camp is a great experience for most, and for others it may be great later, just not now. Use the above suggestions to explore your child’s readiness for camp. At the end of the day, if she’s still digging her heels in resistance, let the issue rest for another year. “There really isn’t any benefit to forcing a child who is dead-set against going, as it really is important to consider your son’s or daughter’s feelings and developmental readiness,” Burks says. “You want the first experience to be a positive one.”
(One parent’s poetic thoughts on homesickness)
by Lois Roisman
Remember that ache in the pit of your gut
When you’re liking your camp and your bunkmates, but
Your bed at home’s what you’d really prefer
In fact, any old bed but the one where you are?
It might help to know at the camp where I went
Homesickness occurred to one hundred percent
Of the kids, from the ones who were having the best
time of all to the ones who were much more hard-pressed.
I’ve researched the problem because it’s not small
And it’s something that plagues children, most, if not all.
What I found will amaze you, because, of all things
That pain in your stomach’s about growing wings!
Yes! What an amazement, that knot that you feel
In your belly is really a very big deal!
We can’t leap tall buildings with flexible springs
But we can fly away on invisible wings!
That ache in your belly is not ’cause you’re sick
It’s the tips of your wings that are poking a bit
On your stomach and causing a terrible frown
So just think happy thoughts ’til it all settles down.
If you rub on your tum and sing ‘grow-wings-grow-out’
Your wings will take root and will soon start to sprout
By the time you’re a grownup and ready to fly
Your wings will be ready to soar to the sky.
So at night when your tummy is feeling that ache
And you’re thinking that camp was a major mistake
And the feathers are hurting like needles and pings
Remember: that ache is about growing wings!