By Narbeh Minassian
One of the most dreaded situations for all parents is that first separation from their child. Whether it is the first day at school, the first sleepover, or the first summer camp, parents and children alike can struggle and find it difficult to cope. However, this problem can be overcome with the right preparation.
The first step is to reassure yourself that summer camp for your child is a smart choice, and you need the conviction to believe you are doing the right thing as there is a good chance that your child will be receptive to any positive or negative vibes that you emit. Many parents hesitate to pay for a camp that, on the surface, seems to teach one skill; for example, why pay a figure that could be around two thousand dollars just to learn to ride a horse at horse riding camp? Frankly, if you cannot change this kind of narrow outlook, it may be best not to send your child at all.
Summer Camp is so much more than just activities. It is a constant social experience, a lesson in independence, and I have heard it most aptly described as life experience with training wheels. Once you are sure on the choice yourself and once you have decided on the type of camp you and your child would like, then it is essential to prepare your child mentally and psychologically. Follow these five steps to avoid any Allan Sherman style letters home:
1.Make your child a part of any camp-related decisions. Allow the child to have as much involvement in the planning as possible- where to go and what to take et cetera. As Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, puts it, ‘the more you can familiarize your kids with the experience ahead-of-time, the less scary it will be’. Logistically, it would make sense to ensure that your child is fully involved in the packing process so that he knows exactly where to locate everything in his or her luggage; you would be surprised how many children will go crying to leaders because they think they have lost something that they just couldn’t find.
2.Manage their expectations- let them know there will be ups and downs. That is not to say that you should be anything but positive; it is important that you generate some excitement in them by emphasising the feeling of enjoyment and relaxation, but it is equally important that you make them aware that it may not be all fun and games. By giving them this small dose of reality, they will be in a much better position to deal with any unhappy moments as they will know that it is nothing out of the ordinary. The most common stumbling block is homesickness, which we will deal with later.
3.Express your confidence in their independence. A good way of doing this is by encouraging them to discuss with you their anxieties about going away. This will help them to identify their fears and, in turn, conquer them. Always highlight the trust that you have in them.
4.Give children some practise time away. Constantly giving positive encouragement, while essential, can only get you so far and there is no better preparation than experiencing the separation. This practise can be as simple as sleeping over at a friend’s house. If they struggle with this, it may be a good idea to send them to a day camp and see if they fare any better there, or, if you prefer, you can attend a family camp, at which the child may naturally realise the benefits of independence. Should you try and still discover that your child doesn’t seem ready, assure them that there is nothing wrong with that. Needless to say, do not make them do anything they are clearly not ready to do.
5.Talk about homesickness. This is the most common problem at summer camps and the camp leaders have plenty of experience in comforting homesick children, but you can help to alleviate the problem beforehand by explaining that this is just a normal emotion to have and that they should not fear it. Be careful with your wording and try not to directly say how much you will miss them, instead, say ‘I’ll be so excited to hear about your camp’. Do NOT fall into the trap of telling you child that you will pick them up if they don’t enjoy it, this is something the ACA warns strongly against. This would simply be disastrous as it stems their confidence and fosters doubt in their ability to cope; besides, there are few things more rewarding for children than overcoming home sickness and regaining control of their camp experience.
These five steps are guidelines, and while they are important, it is ultimately down to you as there will be nobody who knows your child better than you, the parent. Go over these steps together; and make your child an active partcipant in the process; both of you will appreciate the effort and time spent together. Summer Camp is so much more than just a camp; there is so much to learn and do. I cannot tell you how many children I have seen grow in maturity over the course of a week or two and, perhaps most importantly, go home having made good friends and cherished memories. We hope that you and your child have a great summer at the camp you choose. And remember, this is a wonderful opportunity for your child to learn valuable life lessons. We wish you the best of luck, go have some fun and see how much happier your child will be! •