On a cold, February day it’s hard to believe that it’s time to start thinking about summer programs. It’s also the time when I receive a barrage of questions about sleep away camp. Most commonly, what is the right age for a child to go to sleep-away camp.
The good news is that there are no rules about when and if a child should go to sleep-away camp. It is only common sense that reigns. In fact, often it is the parent who has more trouble allowing her child to go than the child not wanting or being ready to go. The Tiger Mom forbade sleepovers. Can you imagine what she thinks of sleep-away camp!
The parents’ childhood experiences with sleep-away camp play a big part in the attitudes they communicate to their children. Those who have fond memories of 8 weeks by the lake, making lanyards, sneaking in and out of tents, and Color Wars are likely to have regaled their children with stories of great times at camp. Many formed lasting friendships that endure to this day. The guest list at my own son’s wedding was seasoned with his wife’s “camp friends” with whom she is still tight.
People from the east coast often have a different experience with sleep-away camp than west coasters, as it is common practice to go for the whole summer, starting as young as seven, even six years old. Not viewed as a “have to,” but rather a “get to,” these children go off with their siblings and cousins, neighbors and pals from school. It’s common practice.
I can say with great certainty that there is much to be gained, in addition to the enduring friendships and myriad experiences that are indigenous to the sleep-away camp environment. Away from the home environment, children grow up. They become independent and responsible in ways you didn’t think possible. True, their teeth may not get brushed, flossed, and fluoride rinsed just how you like it (if at all!), but they do manage. They learn self reliance, they become problem solvers, and they get along with tent mates because they have to.
Here are some of the questions you can ask yourself in deciding if your child is ready to try out sleep-away camp:
- Does he sleep at friends’ houses?
- Does he visit relatives for a few days without you?
- When at a friend’s house or even at home does he need to check in with you often?
- Is he able to take care of his own possessions, jackets finding their way home from school?
- Is he able to meet his responsibilities?
- Does he enjoy being independent?
- Does he want to go to sleep-away camp?
Most experts agree that somewhere around nine or ten years old is a good time to give sleep-away camp a try. Finding a camp that offers a shortened program, two weeks for the first time may be a good idea, as it puts both the parent and the child at ease. And often going with a pal takes the sting out of that first camp separation. The next year, not only will he have friends he’s eager to see, but he’ll know the ropes and be an old pro. The only problem will be hiding your own tears as the bus pulls away.