Tips for First-Time Campers for Summer Camp

Tips for First-Time Campers for Summer Camp

Here is an article that we drafted that is set to be published on the American Camp Association website next week.

Okay, so you have made the excellent decision to give your child the gift of an overnight summer camp experience, and he/she has never been to sleepaway camp. Yikes, what now? No need to panic, everything is going to be fine. In fact, everything is going to be great.

Throughout this process, always keep in mind that sending your child to summer camp is one of the best things that you can do as a parent to help you raise an emotional healthy, well-adjusted, and self-sufficient human being.

Just take a deep breath, grab a cup of coffee and read these tips for first-time camp families.

1. Try a Sleepover

Some first-timers have never slept away from the safety and security of the home quarters (at least not without mom and/or dad in tow). Send junior to stay with aunt Ginnie for a night – not at Grandma’s where he makes weekly visits. It might be a little uncomfortable, but it is good practice for getting used to the feeling of the un- (or at least less) familiar and for gaining confidence in sleeping away from Mom and Dad. And don’t pick them up if they call you in the middle of the night!

2. Go Shopping!

Yes, kids love spending your money, so go ahead and take them to the store to pick out a new tube of toothpaste for camp or a sweet new hand-held water misting fan (which will help them make lots of friends on hot days). You don’t need to spend a lot to enjoy the benefit of the shopping trip. Having tangible symbols of their adventures to come will allow them to better visualize little snippets of their daily existence at camp.

Also, have them pick out a few items for a care package that you can send before camp so that it is there upon your arrival. (Make sure you know your camp’s package policy – e.g., don’t send a box full of candy to a camp that does not permit food-related packages or Peanut M&Ms to a nut-free camp).

3. Make a Checklist

Focus on the positive by brainstorming with your camper a list of four or five specific goals for the summer (for example, chip away at fear of heights by going down the zip line, learn to sail or make at least one friend from another country). Have your camper take this list to camp and send to you a letter during the summer updating you on any progress. When you write to your camper, ask about these specific goals.

4. Care for the Hair

Have your child get a haircut during the week before camp and get them checked for lice. Most camps have lice checks on opening day, and nothing says massive bummer like spending your first day of camp in the infirmary getting “treated” while everyone else is playing four-square. Also, while many camps will resolve the issue right then and there (as opposed to sending your child home), the cost typically will be greater to you than if you have it resolved at home before camp.

5. Manage Expectations

Many parents respond to their children’s fear of camp by telling them that they are going to love it and that there is nothing to worry about. This likely is true, and it is great to remain positive. AND you also need to let them know that the first few days might be a little tough until they get used to the rhythms of camp. They need to know from you that this is perfectly normal and okay to feel this way. Have a conversation about their fears and concerns and brainstorm strategies to deal with them. Otherwise, if they expect nothing but calm seas, the first ripple will have them looking for the lifeboat.

6. Go to Tahiti

Okay, maybe a trip to the South Pacific won’t work, but use the time that your kids are at camp for some good self-care. You have spent years changing diapers, making grilled cheese sandwiches and helping with math homework. You deserve some “me” time. I’m going to say that again – You Deserve Some Me Time. This doesn’t make you a bad parent – it makes you human, and camp allows the perfect opportunity for some good parent recharge time.

Have fun when your kids are at camp, and embrace the quiet. Enjoy a dinner out without having to worry about getting a babysitter. Reconnect with your college buddies or girlfriends. Play a round of golf (remember when you used to play golf?). Don’t worry, it will be over before you know it, so take some time for yourself before the routine of school and kid’s activities set in again.

7. “All Quiet on the Homefront”

Campers LOVE to receive mail from home, so send some. However, make sure to avoid the following:

(1) bad news (“so about your pet goldfish…”),

(2) amazing news that makes home seem more awesome than camp (“We got a new puppy. Oh, and a pool. Oh, and Dad and I are at Disneyland eating candy”), and

(3) sentiments that make your child feel guilty for having fun at camp (“The house is so lonely and quiet without you … I am so sad you are not here with me. I cannot wait for you to come home”).

Instead, when writing letters ask lots of specific questions, make home seem neither terrible nor particularly interesting, and tell them how excited you are that they are having this experience. Remember, camp is about your child. It may be an adjustment for you to be away from Junior. That is normal. But consider whether sharing these feelings with him is for your benefit or his.

8. Come Clean

No, I’m not talking about laundry here. Parents and Camp Directors are partners in the success of your child’s summer, so there needs to be an open and honest line of communication. If your child has a particular challenge that might impact his/her experience at camp, it is best addressed before camp starts. We eventually will learn that your child [occasionally wets the bed] [is struggling with a recent divorce] [takes medication for ADHD during the school year], and if we know this information in advance, we can strategize together and plan for it (for example, placing a bell on the door of a cabin for a camper who sleepwalks).

No need to worry that this information will stigmatize your child. You should be able to trust that your camp director knows how to keep sensitive information either entirely or selectively confidential. If that level of trust is not there, perhaps you should rethink your choice of camp.

9. …And I’ll Tell You No Lies

This is a big one. Under absolutely no circumstances should you promise to pick up your child from camp early if they are having a “bad” time.[1] Making this promise almost will ensure that a struggling camper will make no effort to turn things around. Your child is human, and the path of least resistance (leaving) is oh-so-much more tempting than putting in the mental energy it takes to stick it out and try to have fun.

If you feel that you have to make some sort of promise, make it a reward related to finishing camp (“We’re going to the beach for the weekend when you return home from camp – but not a moment before”). Another good one is to promise that in the unlikely event that they have a miserable experience, they will never have to go back again.

(Every parent to whom I provide this piece of advice always responds with, “of course, I would never do such a thing.” However, they aren’t thinking about the night before camp starts and junior is crying on his bed and the only thing that will soothe his nerves is to make unhealthy, but seemingly reasonable, promises. Watch out for making deals under duress! Even if a camper struggles to overcome homesickness, they gain resiliency, confidence and a sense of accomplishment (“hey, that was tough but I did it!”) when they return home successfully finishing the session.)

10. Avoid the Long, Tearful Goodbye

Often times, children leaving home and going to camp can be more difficult for parents than children. Drop-off day is an exciting, emotional and seemingly hectic experience that might leave you feeling anxious and sad. These feelings are completely normal, and you should allow yourself to feel however you feel – ONCE YOU GET IN THE CAR. The tearful goodbye might feel like love to you but to your child, it might create feelings of sadness and guilt that they are leaving you “alone.” Camp, like many other things that we do for our kids, is not always easy on us parents. But pull yourself together, keep a stiff upper lip, and then feel free to blubber on once you get back in the auto.

Perhaps the most important thing for you to remember as the parent of camper is that the summer camp experience is a tremendous growth opportunity for your child. This does not mean that there won’t be occasional struggles and difficulties along the way. It is like other experiences in life – we often learn more about ourselves from difficult times than blissful moments. Your children are stronger than they know, and with your support, guidance and partnership with the summer camp director, your child has the chance to grow in ways you haven’t even imagined. Happy camping!

Jake Labovitz is a happily recovering lawyer-turned-summer camp director and the owner of Windsor Mountain Summer Camp located in Windsor, New Hampshire and parent of two young children. Windsor Mountain Summer Camp is an overnight camp for children ages 7-16 with a focus on inspiring children to lead positive, compassionate and fulfilled lives through learning and play in a supportive, fun and diverse community. Jake can be reached for comment at [email protected] or 603-478-3166.

[1] This does not mean that a child should never leave camp early. The vast majority of campers who suffer from homesickness fall into the “garden-variety” homesickness category (i.e., feels out of sorts, disconnected at times, cries on occasion intermixed with moments of fun and happiness). Nine times out of ten, these campers will turn things around, even if it takes two weeks. The very small percentage of campers who cry non-stop for a week and refuse to leave the cabin may be suffering from a more serious case of anxiety and/or depression.