Setting Your Child Up to Fail at Summer Camp by Audrey Monke
“If you’re sad or uncomfortable, I’ll come pick you up right away.”
In camp director lingo, we call this kind of pre-camp statement a “pick up deal.” And it’s a terrible idea. In fact, it’s a terrible idea to rescue kids from any and all discomfort -- something parents seem to be more prone to do these days.
Three decades ago, when I started as a camp director, it was unheard of for a parent to pick a child up early from camp due to homesickness. Parents knew that homesickness was part of the camp experience for many kids and that it was something their child -- like thousands before them -- would work through.
These days, we have a handful of campers who go home early every summer. Why? Because their parents can’t handle their child’s discomfort. As soon as a parent says, “Well, I said he could try it for a few days and if he didn’t like it, I would come get him,” we know there’s nothing we can do to help this child -- and parent -- be successful at working through the discomfort of their first separation from one another.
In our pre-camp literature to parents, we’re clear about homesickness do's and don’ts. Included in the “do's” is a reminder to “Expect a sad letter” and realize it may have been written during a quiet time when the camper was feeling reflective. Usually, campers feel much better long before the letter reaches home.
Among the “don’ts” are warnings against telling campers you will rescue them if they miss home or are sad. Nor should parents respond to sad letters with sad letters of their own. It’s okay to write that you miss your camper, but to tell them you are miserable as well, and so is the dog, will only make your camper want to come home even more. If your child is homesick, it will be encouraging to hear that “nothing exciting is happening at home.”
It takes a brave parent to allow their young child to go away to summer camp for a week or two and trust the camp staff will care for that child’s needs. But some parents who aren’t ready to let their child go to camp send them anyway, only to set their child up for failure.
Do campers sometimes get sad and miss home?
Yes and yes. And both of these are good things for their development into a functioning, thriving, independent adult human! They will need this later, when it’s time to leave home for college. Remember this: Summer camp is one of the very few places where young kids have the opportunity to grow their independence from parents.
So what do you say to your kid who’s experiencing normal pre-camp jitters? The truth is always a great option:
“There could be some challenging moments at camp, and I’m confident that you’re ready for this experience.” Or, “Feeling sad or uncomfortable is a normal part of new experiences. The great news is that you’ll grow and be more prepared for all of your future life adventures!”
So, is your child ready for camp? The better question might be this: Are you ready to be a camp parent? If you can’t send your child to camp with confidence in their ability to work through the inevitable discomfort, the answer may be no. But if you can convince yourself that both you and your child are ready for the camp experience, what’s stopping you? There could be no better way to help your child grow.