Sending your child away to camp for the first time is a major milestone for most families, one that is often marked by excitement, anticipation and perhaps even some anxiety. Though camp is certainly about making friends and having fun, it is also about being on your own and being part of a community. One of the most important things you as a parent can do to help prepare your child for both these aspects of camp is to talk with him about it before he goes. In fact, it may be better to have several occasional, shorter talks rather than one long conversation as children often absorb more when there is less to think about at one time. I also find that children do better with this sort of conversation if it is part of a more general conversation and part of a pattern of talking, either at the dinner table or while riding in the car doing errands.
The following are some sample discussion topics that will help prepare your child emotionally for his big adventure:
Tell your child: If you are shy about meeting new kids, then learn to get to know others by being a good listener. Also remember, that not everyone in your cabin, bunk or group has to be your friend, and you don’t have to be everyone else’s friend. As long as you treat others with respect and they do the same with you, then having one or two friends at camp is fine. If you have more, then that’s great, too!
Tell your child: If you tend to be a bit homesick or worried about being homesick, remember the excitement of going to camp. You may not like all the activities, or you may be better at some than others. That’s normal. But you should be willing to try. The more you put into camp, the more you will get out of it!
Tell your child: You, like every other camper there, will be part of a cabin, bunk or group. As your parent, I hope you will cooperate with others and help out. That’s part of what makes camp so special— kids helping each other out. Most kids will help you if you are friendly and help them.
Give yourself time. One thing about camp is that almost everything is new— the kids, the activities, the routines, the bed you sleep in, the bathroom. It takes a few days to get adjusted, so be patient with yourself. Most of the time you will be having so much fun you won’t mind all the changes, but if you do, remember that you will get so used to things that by the time you come home you will miss all those things!
Tell your child: Camp is about fun, but it also requires that you help out. Clean up is part of camp. You do it every day. As your parent, I hope you will cooperate.
Tell your child: Everyone has good days and bad days. If you are having a problem, your counselor is there to help you. You don’t have to wait to tell us if you are upset about something. After all, if your counselor doesn’t know what might be troubling you, he can’t help you. Be honest and ask for what you need. If your counselor doesn’t seem to be concerned or doesn’t help you, then you can go to the unit director, head counselor, etc. (Parents should know who these “back-up persons” are and how their child will recognize them if they need to).
It’s a great thing to remind your first-time camper about his strong points. I would focus not just on what he does well, but his positive qualities, such as what makes him a good friend or the type of person other kids would want to know. Helping children identify their strengths can help them when they are having a setback— one of those inevitable growing pains all children have from time to time.
Talking with your child about these kinds of issues is a great way to show support as your child gets ready to take this important step on the road to becoming more resilient and self-reliant. For you as a parent, it can give you peace of mind as you allow your child to participate safely in a broader world.
To learn more about camp and child development, please visit the American Camp Association’s family Web site: www.CampParents.org. For information about ACA camps, contact: American Camp Association, 5000 State Road 67 North, Martinsville, Indiana 46151, (800)428-CAMP (2267).