Have you ever sent your child to sleepaway camp? We sent our daughter shortly after 6th grade began (she had just turned 11) and it was for two nights, about an hour away. It was part of a school trip, so most of her grade was going. No big deal, I thought. A little trepidation, but nothing major. She did just fine, and was back almost before we knew it.
So when an opportunity came along for her to attend an amazing fine arts camp the following summer, we jumped on it. The only catch: it was for TWELVE WHOLE DAYS and it was across the state. We knew it would be a wonderful opportunity for our budding vocalist, but did we need it to be that long? And that far away? All of us had some anxiety going into it, for certain!
As the date creeped closer to drive her out, I found myself avoiding the packing list. My eyes would sort of skip over those days on the calendar. I tried not to talk about “while you’re at camp”. But I knew avoidance was not the answer! We pushed through and got her off to camp. I had mixed emotions, but knew it would be a good thing for her – and us – in the long run.
We’ve never been the “helicopter” parents (hovering over, micromanaging our children’s days) or the “snowplow” parents (shoving any possible barriers out of our kids’ paths). My husband and I were raised in a pretty similar fashion, with chores and everything, and we wanted to impart a strong work ethic and independence in our kids. We know that sometimes the greatest growth comes out of not-so-fun times, when you have to rely on yourself, or when things don’t go your way. Still, knowing your somewhat shy child is hundreds of miles away, with complete strangers, for days and days…well, I had a few weepy moments!
We got some pretty heart-wrenching letters, but she wrote that she was “staying strong”. And the excitement and pride we felt when we watched her final performance made all that fade away. And now that she’s home, it’s like there is this new kid in the house. This kid looks a lot like our kid, but is more mature, more responsible, and even seems happier. She hasn’t committed to going again next year, but I’m all for it!
I’m not saying sleepaway camp is for everyone, but if you decide to do it, here is an article by Mike Steele. He talked to lots of camp pros, asking what they wished parents knew about how to make camp the best experience for their kids. Reading through after the fact, I think we did most of this the right way, which is always a good feeling. Here are the main pointers from the article (though I recommend you read it in full!):
- Hands Off. Once they go to camp, let them be at camp! If something is truly wrong, the camp counselors will notify you! One of the “great gifts of camp”, says Steele, is learning how to function without your parents. Don’t get in the way of that! I kept repeating to myself – what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger!
- The Wrong Thing to Say…is that you’ll come get them if they’re not having fun! Don’t offer to rescue them if they miss you or don’t like camp. It’s a given that there will be some moments that are not fun. We all have to deal with that. Remind your child that other people will be there for him or her if things get tough. Thee is a support system in place – let it be there to support your child.
- Keep Goodbyes Short and Sweet. Spare your child all the pain you’ll go through without them around! True, things did not feel the same without our daughter around. True, we missed her, a lot! But we focused on everything she would be learning and doing and how proud we were of her. Some kids may actually feel guilty about their parents’ missing them! Don’t add that to the mix.
- Don’t Gloat. Some families are temporarily childless during camp time. Or you might want to do something special with your other child/children since they aren’t getting to go to camp. This can be great – but don’t play up all the cool stuff you’ll be doing while your kids are at camp. Make sure they are focusing on the fun they’ll have at camp, not what they’ll be missing at home.
- Don’t Change Too Much. Leave home pretty much how they left it. Now is not the time to make big family or home changes!
How did you do with these tips? Well, if it was rough this year, give it a try next summer, armed with knowledge from the pros.
— Lori Warner, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, Director, HOPE Center at Beaumont