By Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Camp Director
Read more of Sunshine’s camp-related posts at her website, Sunshine Parenting.
“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
Recently I spoke with a mom whose 11-year-old son is coming to camp in a few days. He’s nervous. He had a negative experience at a one-week science camp. He doesn’t think he can “make it for two weeks” and is worried he’ll be too homesick to make it at camp. I chatted with the mom and gave her some key messages to communicate to her son. She asked for them in bullet points in an email, and I thought there are probably others who might benefit from this same list, so I’m sharing this with anyone who has a child suffering from pre-camp anxiety.
Before I share my list, let me say that if you are not a camp proponent and don’t plan on sending your child to camp, you should probably not read any further. I am a huge supporter of camp and recently had a JC (Junior Counselor) tell me that “Camp made her who she is today.” So, I think that camp is a great thing for building kids’ independence and confidence. I have also seen many kids work through some pretty painful emotions at camp, so I know that camp is not easy for all kids.
We have 7-year-olds at our camp who do great during our two-week sessions. They are the ones who’ve begged their parents to let them come to camp and generally have older siblings who’ve attended camp. I also talk to a lot of parents with older kids who “aren’t sure if they’re ready for
camp.” One thing I’ve learned after close to three decades at camp is that the same kids who are anxious and hesitant about going to camp when they’re nine or ten will still be anxious when they’re 13. And they may not be interested in going away to college when they’re 18, either.
So, as a parent, you need to decide how to approach your child’s separation anxiety, as well as your own. You can avoid it and not send them to camp and hope that 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.
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.” I know there are many parents and children who just can’t stomach the idea of going through some painful time apart. Again, you need not read further if you are not sending your reluctant child to camp.
This post is for those of you who have decided that your child is going to camp, and especially for those of you who had a previously excited camper who is now having last-minute camp anxiety. Here are some messages you can give prior to dropping your camper at the bus or at camp. Pick and choose, and of course use your own words, but acknowledge your child’s feelings and empathize with them while holding firm in your confidence in their ability to succeed and your belief that camp will be good for them.
Without further ado, here are some messages to give to your anxious camper:
- Let them know that 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 know you can still have fun at camp, even if you feel sad sometimes.”
- 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.”
- Talk with your child honestly about the importance of starting to develop some independence. Something along the lines of: “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.”
- Share the reality that many good things in life come with some pain and failure. If you have a story from your own life of something that you had to work hard at or had to go through difficulties in order to master, this is a great time to share. Something along the lines of, “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!
- Let them know that you are confident in them. “I am so excited that you get to go to camp this year. I know it’s going to be such a great experience for you and that you are ready for this.” If you went to camp, share with your camper what you liked about it and how you grew from the experience.
- 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 knee board? I want to hear both the good and bad things about camp in your letters.”
- If your camper asks you if you will pick him up if he’s sad, you need to let him know that 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.”
In Homesick and Happy, Thompson says, “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 would like to note that you do not need to use all of these messages but instead choose the ones you think will resonate most with your child. What’s most important is that you express confidence in your child and in the camp experience. These same messages would be great as responses to a sad letter you receive from your camper.
I always tell the kids that the fun and happy feelings at camp usually far outweigh any sad feelings. Many kids tell me they “don’t feel homesick at all,” but there are some who struggle, especially during their first summer. Those kids seem to grow the most and feel the most pride in their accomplishment of staying at camp. If you are feeling worried about how your child will do at camp, know that you are giving your child a precious gift by allowing them this special time where they get to grow their wings.
- Five Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp
- Five (More) Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp
- Homesickness Help (sunshineparenting.wordpress.com)
- “Kidsickness”: Help for First Time Camp Parents (sunshineparenting.wordpress.com)
Homesick & Happy, by Michael Thompson, PhD.
“Friends are everything. They are always there if you have a problem or if you get hurt,
they can always help you up.”
– Patricio, Camper, Age 8
The commonly accepted trajectory of do well in school -> get into a good college -> make a lot of money -> flourish in life is not exactly accurate. You only have to know one unhappy wealthy person to know that’s not the path that will lead to happiness or fulfillment.
What is a more accurate trajectory? good interpersonal (social) skills -> positive relationships -> flourish in life.
Michael Thompson’s statement, “Friendship is the gold of childhood,” stuck with me long after I attended his conference session on the social lives of children. Friendship is not just the gold of childhood, but also of life. In my research for my Master’s degree in Psychology, I looked closely at studies related to friendship, social skills, and well-being. What I found was not surprising. For children, and adults as well, positive relationships are the best predictor of overall happiness and well-being. As parents, teachers, and counselors, we should be putting a primary emphasis on helping kids develop the social skills they need to make and keep friends.
Unfortunately, our culture is not supporting the development of healthy, solid friendships between kids. Friendship is more important than any academic subject or athletic skill, and yet the way our kids spend their time does not reflect this importance. For many kids, there simply isn’t time in their lives for developing strong, close friendships.
What are our kids learning about friendship in this Instagram, Snapchat, and texting era of “friends?” Many boast hundreds, even thousands, of “friends” and “likes” on photos. Yet some of those same kids don’t have one single person in their lives that meets the criteria of a true and trusted friend. Face-to-face social skills, such as being able to read non-verbal cues, are learned through practice. If communication is primarily through media, then those skills are not being honed.
Another cultural factor that is counter-productive to the development of solid friendships is the constant, high-stakes competition our children are constantly in with their peers. Who’s ranked higher at school? Who made the “A” team? Who’s more popular? Often, instead of being truly supportive and encouraging of each other, kids want their peers to fail.
“Friends are those rare people who ask how you are and then wait for an answer.”
– Author Unknown
Making friends, and being a good friend, doesn’t come naturally to all people. And, coupled with the crazy culture we’re in, it’s no surprise that many kids are struggling to form strong friendships.
Friends are the reason campers and counselors return to Gold Arrow Camp year after year. “Make Friends” is one of the three main goals we chant at the opening of camp each session. At camp, there is time for friendship — precious, relaxing time to get to know each other, spend time making memories, and communicating face-to-face. Our whole camp community is built around inclusion, respect, and kindness. There is no competition at camp, no “A” team or “popular” group. Just kids having fun together and learning to live and play with each other, work out disagreements, and become better friends to each other.
Counselors are trained to help kids connect from the moment they get on the bus until the last good bye. Long talks at meals, around the campfire, and under the stars in sleeping bags are uninterrupted by cell phones and other technological distractions. Campers can’t “tune out” by putting earphones in. They stay engaged with each other and learn to connect. Counselors gently coach campers who need to develop social skills in areas such as listening skills, empathy, sharing, flexibility, initiating conversations, and understanding non-verbal cues. They encourage campers to be intentional about being good friends to each other and observant about what they appreciate about their friends.
On the final day of camp, our campers receive their session yearbooks, which include a space for them to share contact information with each other. We hope that campers use this tool to stay in contact throughout the year.
“Friends are awesome, because they stand up for you, and they care for you.”
– Joey, Camper, Age 11
At one final campfire gathering last summer, the Randy Newman song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” came on during the slide show. A group of four twelve-year-old boys sitting on the bench in front of me spontaneously put their arms around each other and started swaying back and forth, singing along to the song. I will never forget that vivid picture of the power of camp friendships.
Many of my conversations with other parents revolve around academics: what our children are or are not learning in school, how good their teachers are, and, now that my oldest are in college, what they need to do to be successful in life. I believe that a good, solid education is going to provide my children with more opportunities for success as adults. I think most parents would agree. There are some other parenting priorities, however, that I think are sometimes overlooked when we get ultra-focused on academics. These are character assets that, coupled with a good education, will truly be the key to future happiness and success for our kids. One trait that I want my kids to develop is optimism, and it is something we focus on here at Gold Arrow Camp, as well.
Optimism seems to come naturally to some people. They see the best in every situation and person, never let a failure get them down, and basically look on the bright side. For optimists, a rainy day is a positive thing, an opportunity for dust to settle and the air to be cleared. A failed attempt at something new is viewed as a step towards future success. A counselor once told me a story about a remarkable camper in his group. The young boy was struggling with hitting the target at archery, but instead of getting frustrated and giving up, as kids often do, he had a smile and a great outlook. He let his counselor and cabin mates know that he was going to “hit the target soon,” and he just needed to “keep on trying.” That kind of optimistic spirit will take that young man far in life!
But what about the not-so-naturally-optimistic kid? As parents (and camp counselors), we can help nurture the trait of optimism in our kids.
- Let them try new things, even if they don’t always work out.
- Tell them to dream big but to start small.
- Encourage them to learn from others but to always be themselves.
- Make sure they do a little something every day, and a little nothing every day.
- Help them to notice what’s nice and to deal with what’s not.
- Encourage them to look outside themselves and inside themselves.”
According to Dr. Christine Carter in her booking Raising Happiness, “Ten-year-olds who are taught to think and interpret the world optimistically are half as prone to depression when they later go through puberty.” Wow! With the rising statistics on kids and adults who suffer from depression and anxiety, that’s a pretty powerful reason to focus on helping our kids be more optimistic!
Carter recommends three ways parents (and counselors) can help kids be more optimistic: give affection; teach kids to cope with challenges and frustration; and model optimism ourselves. At camp, kids have ample opportunities to try new, often challenging activities. Learning to deal with the frustration of not being able to get up on water skiis on the first, second, third, or fourth try is a powerful lesson in both persistence and optimism. Our role is to help kids learn to handle setbacks and frustrations in a positive way and realize that “success is 99% failure.” (Soichiro Honda)
“Optimism is so closely related to happiness that the two can practically be equated,” says Carter, whose research has found that optimistic people are:
- More successful in school, at work, and in athletics
- Healthier and longer lived
- More satisfied with their marriages
- Less likely to suffer from depression
- Less anxious
In the article “Raise Your Children to be Optimists,” Elizabeth Scott, MS, gives these ten tips for parents:
- Help Them Experience Success
- Give Credit for Success
- Look for Future Success
- Don’t Praise Indiscriminately
- Validate, but Question
- Remember Success in the Face of Failure
- Look for “Opportunities to Improve”
- Look for the Bright Side
- Don’t Use Negative Labels
- Make an example of yourself
Smiling is another powerful tool in promoting optimism, so we practice a lot of smiling around GAC!
Our goals at Gold Arrow Camp are articulated, posted, recited, and practiced by our campers and staff each summer. The goals are to have fun, make friends, and grow.
Each summer, we also select a theme to help campers and staff focus on a specific skill or character trait that will contribute to their fun, friendships, and growth. We want our campers to develop life skills at camp that benefit them long after their camp days are over. In 2012, we focused on practicing gratitude. In 2013, kindness was our focus. Our 2014 summer theme was Creating Connections, and we focused on friendships. This summer, our theme is Give A Hand, and we’re excited to focus on reaching out and helping others.
Friendships have always been a big part of what makes campers and staff love GAC and return year after year, so last summer we focused on one of the best aspects of camp – Creating Connections! We focused on making solid friendship connections at camp, learning and practicing social skills that make us good friends, and maintaining friendships after camp ends.
Positive relationships predict happiness better than health, economic status, education level, and other aspects of life. Yet there is no class offered in school on how to make and keep friends, and while the skill comes naturally to some, to others creating connections is not easy. That’s where GAC comes in. Camp is all about friends, because camp is a time when kids have the opportunity to really connect, face-to-face and without distractions, with other kids and young adults. Around the campfire, out on a sailboat, enjoying the sunset together during an evening canoe, and many other camp moments every day provide campers with the opportunity to really connect – without distractions, without worrying about the social strata, without feeling rushed because there’s a sports practice or meeting to get to. Campers’ time together at camp is much more concentrated and focused than time spent with friends in between school and organized, structured sports and activities. Circled around a campfire, sharing their goals, fears, and dreams, campers get to know each other well, learn to appreciate each other’s unique qualities, and form deep bonds of friendship. In fact, many campers say their camp friends, whom they spend only two weeks with each summer, are their closest friends. This summer, we’re going to focus on those friendships.
From the moment campers step on the bus to go to camp, counselors will facilitate introductions between campers. By the end of the first day at camp, campers will not only know the names of everyone in their cabin group, but they will also know some of the goals and personality characteristics that make their new friends tick. Counselors will help campers get to know each other through both organized and informal social games and activities. Throughout the camp session, campers will have opportunities for both group and one-on-one socializing with other campers, facilitated by counselors as needed.
Learning & Practicing Friendship Skills
Counselors will coach campers on specific social skills that help form and maintain solid friendships, including the communication skills, emotion regulation skills, and emotional intelligence that are important in forming positive relationships with others.
Counselors will model the social skills they want campers to practice and will facilitate age-appropriate campfire discussions about friendship. Campers will be asked to look for and point out ways their cabin mates have demonstrated great friendship traits. Through different activities facilitated by the counselors, campers will talk about and share how they’re creating connections at camp.
Counselors will talk with campers about how each person needs to develop relationship skills to help connect better with others, and counselors will help campers tune it to their friendship strengths and coach them in areas where they can improve their friendship skills.
Maintaining Camp Friendships
At the conclusion of the session, we will encourage campers to stay in touch with each other after camp ends. We’ll have them exchange email, phone, address, or social media account information (whichever is their best form of contact). Rather than sending the cabin address list to parents as we have done in the past, we will ask campers to take ownership of this exchange of friend contact information. Ask your camper to show you his “Friendship Contact Information” when he gets home from camp, and encourage him to keep up the connections he creates at GAC this summer!
Our goal is for all of our campers to create solid friendship connections with their cabin mates and other campers that are maintained well beyond the borders of GAC and that last much longer than their camp session.
We had a great 2014 summer Creating Connections, and we’re looking forward to continuing that this summer!
Audrey “Sunshine” Monke has been the owner and director of Gold Arrow Camp since 1989. Read more of her thoughts on camp and parenting at sunshine-parenting.com.
“A profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need for success in their communities and workplaces.”
-Partnership for 21st Century Skills
“Having started at Gold Arrow as a little seven year old, I have grown up here. Camp has become my home away from home, and I can honestly say it has shaped who I am today. It has given me confidence and taught me skills far beyond learning how to wakeboard or horseback ride. I am comfortable with myself, I am patient, and I have learned how to become a leader.”
-Katie “Rascal” Baral, 10 year Camper
Parents, educators, and youth development professionals are well-versed in the phrase “21st Century Skills.” The phrase encompasses our current understanding of the urgent need for our children to be learning more than how to read, write, and do math. There are many other skills needed to grow into productive, successful adults. As I look at the list of 21st Century Skills, I am struck by how many of the skills are intentionally modeled and taught at camp. Following are five specific 21st Century skills that children learn at camp:
1. WORKING CREATIVELY WITH OTHERS
Campers learn to work creatively with others through working towards goals with their cabin group. Even something as simple as collaborating on a skit, song, or dance requires being open and responsive to different perspectives and incorporating group input. An important aspect of creativity and innovation is being able to “view failure as an opportunity to learn.” At camp, with every new and challenging activity, campers are encouraged to challenge themselves and persevere past failure. They learn that “creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.”
From the moment they arrive at camp, campers have the opportunity to practice and hone their communication skills. Gathered around the campfire on the first evening, campers talk about themselves in front of their small cabin group. They also listen to others share about themselves. At meals, campfires, and while walking around camp and participating in activities, counselors guide discussions about deeper issues and make sure all campers participate, even those who are less outgoing. Listening skills are addressed and enhanced through practice. Without the distractions and escape of technology, campers practice articulating thoughts and ideas and listening to the ideas of others throughout their time at camp.
When working together at Team Building, during cabin clean up, or while preparing fora performance, campers learn important collaboration skills. They learn that they need to be flexible. They often learn another important collaboration skills, which is that it is often necessary to make compromises to accomplish a goal. Counselors encourage campers to share responsibility for tasks and work together. Campers are also encouraged to value and acknowledge each individual contribution made by team members.
4. SOCIAL AND CROSS-CULTURAL SKILLS
Learning to interact effectively with others is an important social skill that doesn’t come naturally to all people. At camp, counselors guide campers to learn when it is appropriate to listen and when it is appropriate to speak. Counselors also require that campers respectfully listen to others’ opinions and treat others with respect.
For many campers, their time at camp is their first opportunity to meet and live with people from other cultures. Camp offers the opportunity for kids to form friendships with staff and campers from other countries. Camp provides the opportunity for campers to gain a respect for and work effectively with people from a range of cultural backgrounds. On International Day each session, we celebrate and learn about our international campers and staff.
5. LEADERSHIP AND RESPONSIBILITY
Guiding and leading others is an important 21st Century skill. In campers’ early years at camp, they learn basic responsibility for themselves and those around them. Even our youngest campers have the opportunity to lead others in a song or game. As they get older, campers gain more of an understanding of how their words and actions influence others, and they learn how to positively use their leadership skills.
While academics are important, children need other skills to be successful. Camp offers an ideal setting for campers to learn and enhance many of the non-academic 21st Century Skills. One line of our camp song says, “I sure did learn much more here than I ever did at school.” And, when learning is viewed as more global than the subjects listed on the report card, that is an incredibly profound and true statement.
Read about all of the 21st Century Skills at www.p21.org.