Tag Archives: homesick and happy

What’s the Best Age for Camp?

You probably want a number here. If you’re only going to read these first two sentences, then I’ll pick the age of nine.

G-C15-6601But my real answer is a bit more complex. When to start sending your child to sleep-away camp is a decision that depends on you, your parenting style, and your child’s temperament. Many kids have extremely fun and successful camp experiences as young as six years old, but that’s too young for most kids. And, for some parents, the thought of their child EVER going to camp (without them) is unimaginable. If you’re one of those parents, please read Five Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp. Sometimes, “he’s not ready for camp” actually means you’re not ready. Realizing that your child can be okay without you is sometimes hard on parents, and it’s a big step to let them have the independent experience of summer camp.

These are the guidelines I recommend to parents who are ready to send their child to camp but aren’t sure what age is best.

If your child is 5 or under, that’s too young for overnight camp alone. Go to a family camp together, or try an American Camp Association accredited day camp program in your area, which is a great way to get the feel for what camp is all about!

 G-C14-0259Only send your 6-8 year old to camp if:

• Your child is a fairly independent kid (not clingy to you) and can take a shower on his/her own. If your child happily goes to school and is fine at day camps and other activities without you constantly by his/her side, then he/she’s probably ready for camp. Parents often worry about the logistical stuff with young kids. “Will someone make sure he eats? Puts on sunscreen? What if he wets the bed?” Know that, at a well-run, accredited camp program, counselors are trained to take care of young children well. Counselors will make sure your camper gets enough water, eats properly, and puts on sunscreen. Most camps work with families of bed wetters to help them feel comfortable coming to camp. You just need to make a plan on how to manage the bed wetting with the staff at your child’s camp (using a pull-up and keeping small plastic trash bags in the bottom of the sleeping bag for the counselor to throw away privately works well).

G-C15-9998• Your child is ASKING to go. This usually occurs with younger siblings who visit or hear about camp from older brothers and sisters. They’ve been watching and hearing about the fun for a few years and they want “in.” I’ve often been at camp events where older kids are coming to hear about camp, and the younger siblings in attendance end up begging their parents to let them go to camp, too.

• You, as the parent, are confident in your child’s ability to be away from you.  And you are able to express that confidence to your child. And YOU can handle the separation.

For young kids, focus on if your child is ready. This is not the age to force camp upon a hesitant child.

G-C09-9999Once your child is 9-10 years old, I have three different guidelines, depending on your child and you.

1. If your 9-10 year old is excited to go to camp, go for it! Find a camp and sign him/her up!

2. If your 9-10 year old is hesitant about going to camp:

• Talk with other families whose kids go to camp to expose him/her to the idea.  Hearing how much other kids like camp might encourage him/her to want to go.

• Attend camp information sessions and browse websites. Watch camp videos to show your child the fun that happens at camp.

• If exposing your child to the idea of camp gets him/her excited, then forge ahead with signing up and sending your child to camp. If he/she gets “cold feet,” use these discussion strategies to let him/her know why camp will be good for him/her.

TB-C20-87343. If your 9-10 year old child is STILL hesitant, you have two choices:

The Hard Choice (Michael Thompson, PhD. would say the better one):  Tell your child, “I know you’re ready for this experience and it will be a good experience for you that I don’t want you to miss out on. I know you’re nervous, but this is something that is important for you to do.” Read the book Homesick and Happy as your homework before you broach the subject with your child. Explain all the benefits of camp and how you think camp will be great for him/her and how it is an important step in his/her growth and development.  Let your child know that you, as the parent, think it’s an important experience that you don’t want him/her to miss out on. And then, sign up for camp that is a good fit for your child and offers activities he/she is interested in! Making this choice requires being able to stand your ground and not give in to whining. Better to not dwell on the topic until it gets closer to summer. Sign up but don’t talk about it too much, too far in advance if your child is especially anxious about it.

G-C20-8600The Easier Choice (for now): Give your child a one year “pass,” but follow through! “Okay, no camp this summer, but next year you’re for sure going to a camp we choose together that is a good fit for you. I know you’re ready, and it will be a great experience for you that I don’t want you to miss out on. I know you’re nervous, but this is something that is important for you to do.” Read the book Homesick and Happy as your homework over the year! Follow through and make going to camp next summer non-optional. Talk with your friends and research an accredited camp program that’s a good fit for your child. Attend “meet and greet” events or camp tour days to meet other camp families.

G-C20-9361Know that kids who are hesitant about camp at 9 or 10 are likely to still be hesitant at 13, and possibly hesitant at 18 about going to college. Kids who are nervous about being away from home and parents need to figure out how to work through those feelings, and a week or two at camp is an easy way to start! It’s actually easier to start camp at 9 or 10 and work through those difficult homesick emotions without also contending with puberty. So… knowing that it’s great to get your child some independent experience early, forge ahead confidently (or at least pretend you’re confident!).

If your child is 11,

It’s REALLY time.  See above steps but don’t do the easier choice. Remember when you were 11? Your best memories were not hanging out with your parents. Time to get some fun, independent experience!

TEM-C06-1539If your child is 12 or older and has never been away to camp, please let them go! Seriously. I’ve been at camp fairs, where a mother with a child taller than she is tells me, in front of her child, “He’s WAY too young to be away from me for two weeks.” I look at the young person standing next to her and want to say, “He’s not too young. You just don’t want him to be away from you.” But, I can’t say that unless it’s a friend who I can be really frank with. So, I just feel badly for the kid, who longingly looks at camp pictures but knows that his mom won’t ever let him go.

Your older child will likely not be the only first year camper his/her age. There will be fewer new kids at camp in that age group, but camp kids are welcoming, so don’t worry. Let your child be part of the process of picking a camp, but please send them to camp! I’ve met many families who waited until their child was 12 or 13 years old to start camp, only to be disappointed that they had so few summers to enjoy at camp before they were too old. Plus, the kids who tend to have the most extreme homesickness are the older ones who’ve never been away. But, if your child is one who may experience that extreme homesickness, isn’t it much better that it happen during a 2-3 week summer program than when they’re a freshman in college? Too many kids are not making it in college because they don’t have the coping skills to be away from home. Give your child the gift of early independence to help them develop the skills they need to thrive as a young adult!

G-C04-9260So now you see why I couldn’t give a short answer.  I hope this helps you make the decision of when is the best age to send your child to camp!

Enjoy your kids today!

Audrey “Sunshine” Monke
Camp Director at Gold Arrow Camp
Writer at Sunshine Parenting

Resources:

Should I Make my Kid go to Camp?

Homesick and Happy, Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

Camp Parents, American Camp Association

Find a Camp, American Camp Association

Five Reasons Great Parents Send their Kids to Camp, Sunshine Parenting

Why Kids Flourish at Camp, Sunshine Parenting

Seven Messages for a Reluctant Camper

“Children want to be independent, and they realize that they cannot be truly independent until they beat homesickness, even when they have a painful case of it.” -Michael Thompson, PhD., Homesick and Happy

Do you have a reluctant camper or one who’s not sure if camp is right for him or her?

IMG_8687I talk to a lot of parents before they send their children to camp, and many have campers who are anxious about going to camp. In some cases, they’ve had a negative experience at a one-week school science camp and don’t think they can “make it for two weeks” and are worried about being homesick. In other cases, the kid is a “home body” who prefers being online to playing outdoors.

When talking to parents who are unsure if they should send their child to camp, I share my opinion that for very young kids (ages 6-8), it’s best to wait on camp if they are not enthusiastic about going. Many of our younger campers are siblings of older kids who have attended camp. They have heard about camp for years and can’t wait to participate. Those young kids who are excited to come to camp do fine and rarely struggle with homesickness.

But if your child is nine or ten and is still saying T-9969they’re “not ready” or “don’t want to go,” you as a parent need to decide what’s best for your child. After spending close to three decades working at camp, I’ve learned that the same kid who is anxious and hesitant about going to camp when he’s nine or ten will most likely still be anxious when he’s thirteen. As a parent, you need to decide how to approach your child’s anxiety, as well as your own. You can avoid it, not send them to camp, and hope they develop independence in other ways, which is definitely possible. Or, you can bite the bullet, give them these positive messages, and send them off to camp with a smile, knowing that it may be hard for them, but they will grow from the experience.T-8057

In Michael Thompson, PhD.’s book Homesick and Happy, he says “It is the very challenge of camp that makes it such a life-changing experience for so many children.”

According to Thompson, “Homesickness is not a psychiatric illness. It is not a disorder. It is the natural, inevitable consequence of leaving home. Every child is going to feel it, more or less, sooner or later. Every adult has had to face it and overcome it at some point in life … If you cannot master it, you cannot leave home.”

I know there are many parents and children who just can’t stomach the idea of going through some painful time apart. You need not read further if you are not sending your reluctant child to camp. This article is for those of you who have decided that your child is going to camp regardless of their reluctance, and also for parents whose previously excited camper is now having last-minute camp anxiety.

Pick and choose the messages that you believe will resonate with your child, and, of course, use your own words. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and empathize while expressing confidence in your child and in the camp experience. Share your own stories!

1. You are confident in them.

“I am so excited that you get to go to camp this year. You are ready for this adventure, and I know it will be so much fun.”

2. Missing home is okay.

“You may feel homesick, and that’s okay. A lot of kids feel that way. That just means that you love us and you love home. I feel homesick when I’m on trips, too. Missing home is part of life. But I konw you can still have fun at camp, even if you feel sad sometimes.”

3. Reassure them that there are people at camp who will take care of their needs.

“There are adults at camp (counselors, directors) who are there to take care of you and help you with anything you need. They can help with things you normally come to me about. Let them know if you are feeling sad, and they can help you. They have lots of experience working with kids who are away from home for the first time.”

4. Encourage them to see the bigger picture.

T-0097 2“It may seem like a long way off, but in a few years, you’ll be ready for college. I want you to feel confident in your ability to live away from me, so that you can choose any school you like, even if it’s far away from home. Think of camp like your practice time for when you’re older and ready to move away for school or a job. You’ll get better at being independent by starting now, when you’re young, with short spurts of time away. Some kids aren’t doing well when they start college because they don’t have any experience being away from home. I want you to feel great when you go to college, because you’ll know that you’ve already been successful with short camp stays.”

5. Share the reality that good things in life come with some pain and failure.

“Many good things in life aren’t easy at first. Learning a new sport or trying something new is really hard. Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to discover something you really love. If you never go through anything hard, you’re going to miss out on some great experiences. The first few days of camp may be hard, and that’s okay. I know you’ll work through it and figure out what makes you feel better. I have confidence in you, and I am so proud of you for going to camp and trying this new adventure!”

6. Make sure they know you want to hear about everything.

“Every day comes with its good and bad parts. When you’re at camp, I want you to write me letters and tell me all of the stuff that you’re doing and feeling. If you feel homesick at rest time, tell me about it, and also tell me what you did to help yourself. Did you talk to your counselor? Keep yourself busy playing cards with friends? Write me a letter? I also want you to share good stuff. Did you get your favorite food for lunch? Try rock climbing? Get up on a wakeboard? I want to hear both the good and bad things about camp in your letters.”

7. You are not going to pick him up early.

“Even if you’re a little homesick for the whole time you’re at camp, you’re going to feel so much better about the experience if you stick it out and make the best of it. Most kids feel better after a few days of getting settled in and adjusted, and I know you’ll feel great once you let yourself relax and just start enjoying all the fun things at camp. I’m not going to pick you up early, no matter what, because I know you will feel really proud of yourself for making it through camp, even if you have some hard days.”

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Another great way to encourage your child to be more enthusiastic about camp, besides sharing these messages, is to connect them with someone who’s been to camp and has had a positive experience. Hearing from a trusted friend how much fun camp is can help a child overcome their anxieties.

Audrey “Sunshine” Monke is the Owner/Director of Gold Arrow Camp. You can read more posts on her blog, Sunshine Parenting

Further Reading:
Homesick and Happy, by Michael Thompson PhD
The Summer Camp Handbook, by Dr. Christopher Thurber