Let’s Talk
Chatting now about what to expect can ease a new camper’s adjustment.

by Ellen Warren

Watched camp videos? Check. Interviewed camp directors? Check. Picked a camp? Check. Ordered name tags? Check. Prepared your child for a successful summer at camp? Uh…
Caught in the excitement of sending a child off to a day or overnight camp, even the most prepared parents can overlook the most important preparation of all. Getting a child ready for camp means more than buying extra bathing suits.

How you communicate with your child in the critical period leading up to camp can make all the difference, says family therapist Bob Ditter, a consultant to the American Camp Association (ACA).

Homesick Isn’t Sick
It’s natural for campers to fear or feel some homesickness. But preparing a child for a camp experience by not planting the seed of homesickness can lower the intensity of first-year campers’ homesickness by about 50 percent.

“Research shows that 90 percent of children attending summer camp feel some levels of homesickness and that 20 percent face a serious level of distress that, if untreated, worsens over time and interferes with their ability to benefit from a camp experience,” says Christopher Thurber, PhD, co-author of a homesickness article in the journal

“What parents say beforehand matters, and is very important for the intensity of homesickness,” says co-author Edward Walton, MD.

Experts advise parents to tell children that it’s okay to miss home and think about something they miss for a few minutes, and then go back to focusing on having fun at camp. “Tell children that homesickness is natural, and warn children against keeping feelings of homesickness to themselves or doing something ‘bad’ in order to get sent home,” says Thurber.

Some children find comfort in keeping a small piece of home — perhaps a picture or a very small stuffed animal — in their backpack or bunk, though nothing valuable should be sent to camp.

Chat About Camp
Rather than sit a child down for “the camp talk,” Ditter advises a series of short chats worked into general discussion around the dinner table or in the car. If you’re not sure what to say, he offers these suggestions:

On making friends: You can get to know others by being a good listener. Remember that not everyone 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, that’s great, too!

On trying new activities: There is so much to do at camp. Be willing to try many things, even if you have never done them before. You may not like all the activities, or you may be better at some than others. That’s normal. Remember that the more you put into camp, the more you will get out of it.

On cooperating on bunk chores and activities: Camp is about fun, but it also requires that you help out. Just like at home, clean-up is part of camp. You do it every day! 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.

On asking for help when you have a problem: 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 him 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.

On staying positive: Remind yourself about your strong points. Focus not only on what you do well, but also positive qualities, such as what makes you a good friend or the type of person other kids would want to know.

Keep Communication Open
Lisa Allyn Silverstein, director of Windmill Day Camp in Doylestown, PA, says that talking with your child about camp can also uncover fears or concerns that should be communicated to camp staff before the season starts.

“If a child is shy or afraid of being homesick, is a first-time swimmer or is worried about sports or anxious about family problems, we want to know so we can train our staff accordingly,” she says. “Also, if a child wants to try something new or has set a goal for himself, we need to know that, too. The more parents can tell us about their child’s hopes and fears, the more we as camp staff can dedicate ourselves to the individual needs of the child.”

“Communication is vital,” adds Dan Zakrociemski, director of Summer Adventures Day Camp in Hockessin, DE. He advises parents to contact the camp promptly if issues come up, and then follow up to make sure they have been resolved efficiently. He also suggests:

Post a countdown to camp on the refrigerator or a bulletin board, where the whole family can share in the anticipation of camp.

Try to attend a pre-camp open house, where kids can tour the camp and meet counselors and other campers, to ease the transition from school to camp.

Keep the excitement going through the first day of camp by keeping good-byes short, especially with younger children. “The longer a parent stays at camp, the longer it takes the camper to adjust to the camp settings. We recommend parents call and check how their child is doing. In most cases the child is having a great time,” says Zakrociemski.

In his Parent Resource Guide, Andy Pritikin, director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Columbus, NJ, cautions that parents generally have more anxiety about camp than their children. But to help kids get along at camp, says Pritikin, children need to know they have their parents’ absolute confidence. He suggests that if you’re anxious about the start of camp, make every effort not to transfer your inevitable stress and fears over to your children.

Don’t make deals (“I’ll come and pick you up if you want me to”) as they always backfire, says Pritkin. He says that usually after the first few days of camp, it should be smooth sailing.

Talk About Tolerance

Karyn McGee, program director at College Settlement Camp in Horsham, PA, says that parents can also encourage kids to get along at camp by discussing diversity, inclusion, and what it means to be a “nice kid.”

McGee says, “Children should come to camp knowing that they may be with kids who are different from them, and that everyone has to work together to get to know each other and have fun.

“Tell children that they may meet kids with many different personalities, and that talking to other campers and staff is a good way to get along,” suggests Zakrociemski.

“Parents can help children realize that to be remembered as a nice person, they have to have compassion for other kids,” says McGee. “One of the great things about camp is that it’s a place to put preconceived notions aside. All we know about each other is what we each choose to share.”

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

For More Info
The American Camp Association provides expert advice and valuable information and resources for parents at its website www.campparents.org

Read more from family therapist Bob Ditter, a specialist in children and camp, at www.bobditter.com
Christopher Thurber, PhD, author of The Summer Camp Handbook, offers tips about parenting, summer camp, and children at his website, www.campspirit.com