When Should I Send My Child to Camp?
As you leave your boots by the door and begin peeling off frozen layers of gloves, hats, parkas, and scarves, perhaps thoughts of summer are far from your mind. Or perhaps, like many parents, you have a question lingering in the back of your brain-freeze aching mind. Is it time yet? For parents who desire a camp experience for their kids, it can be hard to know when to pull the trigger and decide that this is the inaugural summer. Perhaps they are eager to leave, but you’re not sure if they’re ready (or if you are) for that length of time away. Perhaps you desperately want your kids to experience the freedom, fun, and personal growth of camp, but they’re reluctant to leave you, their home, and their techno-gadgets behind. Whatever your situation, the following tips may help you navigate the waters of planning your family’s summer.
1. There is no “right age” at which all kids should trot off to camp, knapsack-on-shoulder. Every child is different, and as a parent, you are best equipped to evaluate your child’s readiness. Just because your child’s peers go to camp does not mean he or she should join them, and just because they don’t does not mean your son or daughter should stay home.
Most kids and parents do not feel simultaneously “ready” for camp, so it takes an informed decision on the part of a parent or guardian to get things going at the right time. Consider your child’s ability to handle the “basics” on their own. Don’t get overly distracted by the details – tooth brushing, changing clothes, etc., but ask more general questions. Can they follow basic instructions at school and at home? Can they navigate from place to place and remember directions (around their school?, around their neighborhood?). Do they crave freedom and choice, or shy from it? None one of these questions by itself provides a final answer, but together they can help you evaluate both if your child is ready for camp, and how they could grow while they’re there.
2. Don’t overrate (or underrate) your child’s existing skills in sports or other activities. One of the great things about good camp counselors is that they can find an activity that each camper is good at. Your child may not be the captain of the soccer team, but camp could be their opportunity to realize a love of woodworking, skeet shooting, or paddleboarding. Rather than evaluating your child’s readiness for camp based on theirs skills, find a camp that’s committed to giving kids individual attention and connecting them with a broad range of new activities and experiences.
3. Practice makes perfect. Both you and your child need to build up to the camp experience. Even the shortest camp programs typically last a few days or a week. Allow your son or daughter to visit families you trust for an overnight stay. Start with other family members if it’s easiest. A night with grandma and grandpa could be just thing your homesick camper (or, perhaps, the camper-sick parent) needs to begin spreading their wings outside the nest.
As an aside, you, the parent, should have a plan for the time you spend away from your son or daughter. You don’t need to go on a European vacation, but you’ll handle the separation better by keeping busy as opposed to wearing out your mouse clicking the “refresh” button on the camp’s Facebook page.
4. Be prepared for a stretching experience. As acknowledged above, it’s unlikely that you and your child will feel “ready” for camp at the same time. This means one of you is going to be stretched by the experience of time apart. Stretching, of course, is how we grow as people, so take it head on. Do your best to differentiate your emotions from what’s best for your son or daughter. Don’t discount them entirely, because emotions are important – they remind us of the immeasurable value of our kids. Be prepared though, for things to be hard, especially during the initial hours and days.
20 years ago, my parents sent me off to camp, despite my own complaints that I wasn’t ready. I cried on the car-ride there. I prayed “if You’ll just get me through this” prayers as I entered my cabin. Then, I met my counselor and I never looked back. It took a bold move on my parents’ part to help me cross that threshold, but it changed my life. From that year on I never missed another summer of camp and I began to discover a whole new side of myself; with opinions, skills, and goals of my own.
Unlike the story above, I see 10 camper-sick parents for every “homesick camper” at Moose River Outpost. I salute these parents. They’ve done a hard thing in giving their child space for a couple of weeks, but they’ve also taken a key step in building a strong, independent young man or woman. Letting go is hard, and we should think of it as work – something to be taken seriously and respected.
5. Do your research on camps. Is your camp ACA accredited ? [It should be]. Do they have enough counselors to provide your child individual attention at key times? [They should, obviously]. Do they serve healthy food your son or daughter will enjoy? The more you learn, the better you’ll be at selecting a camp, but perhaps more importantly, the more confident you’ll be as a parent that your child is safe and well cared for at camp.
6. Finally, what age is right? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a magic number? Of course there isn’t. If your child is still in diapers at night, it’s probably best to keep them at home for another summer (with that said, we do get campers from time to time in this situation, and, to tell you the truth, most of them do just fine at camp). If you’re handing your child the car-keys before you’ve given them a camp experience, then you’ve probably missed an important opportunity for a middling step toward independence. In between these markers, you should try to step out and make a decision.
As you consider it, don’t go it alone. Talk to camp directors – avoid the ones who treat you like you’re passing a kiosk in a shopping mall, chasing you down to make a “sale.” Find someone who listens to a description of your child (or better yet – meets them and talks with them) and gives you honest feedback on how your child could fit in at camp. Good camps have camp directors that not only know kids, but also share in the parent perspective. These individuals want your child to be safe, cared for, and successful at camp and they can help you achieve these things for your child. If you get the impression these aren’t their first priorities, move on. There’s a better camp for you and your child.
A summer camp experience should be an important step in the growth of kids as well as an annual opportunity for them to grow in confidence, independence, and social skills. Approach that step carefully, but I do encourage you to approach it. What began in my life as a tearful goodbye became the foundation on which my own adulthood would grow.