Way back in February you sent in the deposit. Sleep-away camp, here we come! It was going to be fantastic—swimming in the lake, roasting marshmallows by the campfire, pillow fights in the cabin. Just weeks before opening day, your son’s excitement fills the air. I get to go away for two whole weeks! No school! No chores! No sister getting on my nerves! No parents to bug me! Then, as you’re ironing on the last of name labels, he wanders in and quietly asks, “What if I’m homesick?” Reality is sinking in.
As fabulous and fun as sleep away camp can be, that first time—often the camper’s first extended separation from parents—can feel daunting. Daunting not only to the camper but to his parents, too.
It’s really a toss up. On whom is sleep away camp harder? The child or the parent? After all, it is whole new kind of separation for you both.
It’s hard to accurately predict which child is going to love it, who’s going to be homesick, and who is going to ask to stay another whole month. Kids and camp are full of surprises. But we do know that mastering sleep-away separations can be life altering for children. Children come home more independent, more self-reliant, more responsible, more resilient, (and really dirty!) Every parent wants that. So, what can a parent do to encourage and support sleep away camp separations?
Tips for Managing Camp Separations
1. Get your own emotions under control. Children are absorbent. If you are doubting your child’s (and your) decision to go, if you are feeling weepy at the thought of being apart for so long, if you are worried about his well-being, don’t let him know and don’t let it show! Saying things like, “I am going to miss you so much” should be replaced with comments that reflect your confidence in him and in the great experience he is going to have. “I am so excited for you. You are going to have so many fantastic experiences!” (And remember, when the time comes, no mommy tears at the bus! Just encouraging, happy waves, please!)
2. Acknowledge his feelings. If you child expresses nervousness or trepidation about going, let him know how normal those feelings are. Saying “I can imagine that you are feeling uneasy. Most kids do feel nervous about their first time at sleep away camp” lets him know that he is no different from anyone else.
3. Do not discount his feelings. Comments such as, “Aw c’mon, you shouldn’t be worried” give the child the message that he shouldn’t trust his own feelings. Rather, assure him that after the first day or two, when he knows the ropes—his counselor, the program, has friends—then he will feel better. It takes time to feel comfortable. Remind him of other “firsts” he has mastered in his life (school, first sleep over, new activites, etc…) Soon you’ll add sleep-away camp to that list.
4. Discuss a plan for dealing with feelings. Knowing what he can do “just in case” he feels unhappy or homesick, is comforting. Talking to a friend, writing a note home, and especially talking to his counselor are good ideas. Explain that the counselors and camp administration know very well that sometimes kids feel this way, so they know how to help them feel better.
5. Do write letters. (Who does that anymore? YOU should!) It is absolutely thrilling to get a letter from home when a child is away. And start writing those short, unemotional letters a few days before the child leaves so that he’ll have one at the very first Mail Call. Try not to pepper your letters with cries of We miss you! and beware of descriptions of all the fun things you and his sister are doing at home. Make your life sound dull and ordinary, in turn making him feel that he is not missing anything on the home front!
6. Do not offer a phone call. Talking to you on the phone if he is homesick, will not help. In fact, it will only make things worse. Hearing your voice reminds him of what he is missing and communicates that he needs you to feel better. (You can, however, speak to the camp director to be assured the camp food really isn’t poisoning him.)
7. Coming home is not an option. Doing so gives a strong message of failure no matter how it is couched. Only severe illness warrants throwing in the towel. Even if your child hates camp—hates his friends, the counselors, the food, the works—he needs to finish his session. He’s sticking it out. And upon his return, as you passively listen to his descriptions of the many horrors that befell him, you can say, “At least you gave it a try and stuck it out. You must be pretty proud of yourself.” And slowly the stories of all the fun stuff will begin to surface, crowding out the memories of the bad.
Don’t be surprised when the December camp reunion notice arrives and your sleep-away-camp-hating-child is all ready to go! For some kids, sleep-away camp homesickness is like child birth: He just doesn’t remember the pain.