October 21, 2022
I’m a camp director and I’m also a camp parent. My husband, Eric, and I run Camp Akeela in Vermont and I was pregnant with our older daughter the first summer we opened in 2008! Both of our girls spent their early summers with us at camp, playing with a camp counselor dedicated just to them. That was fun for a bit, but we recognized that our girls were missing the social experience that we were providing for our campers. Eric and I both grew up going to camp and although I was always the camper who was terribly homesick, I learned as a young adult how much I learned and grew from those summers. Eric and I both met our best friends at camp, and we wanted that for our own children. Sending them away to their own camp where they would have to be independent and would have to work through struggles without our help was too important for us to pass up for them even if they grew up with camp in their back yard.
The first summer we sent our older daughter to Walt Whitman, I was a nervous wreck! Although we’re friends with the directors and love and trust them completely, and although Eric grew up there, I was still a mom and still had anxiety about sending my (then 2nd grade) daughter away. From the very basic worries: Would she be warm enough at night? Would she find enough food to eat? To more significant ones: Would she make friends? Would she be safe in the water? I could feel my anxiety build as I packed up her duffle bags and the day of her departure got closer. And then, the day we sent her off to camp came and went and she had to figure it all out on her own. And that’s the beauty of camp…. once she left, she would have to figure stuff out without us and if she didn’t, there would be trusted staff there to help her. After a few days, I realized I was relaxed. I saw her smiling in a photo and I was good. She was doing her own thing and she was ok. And, 6 years later, camp is her favorite place where she tells us she feels like she’s her “best self”, her “most relaxed” and “most confident”. And now, her little sister will be at camp with her next summer for the third time and she will have the same opportunities to learn and grow.
So – here is my advice (as a mom….and a camp director too)!
1. Be a duck….paddle like heck under water but glide smoothly on the surface. Don’t let your child hear, see or feel any anxiety you might be feeling. They will follow your lead. You don’t need to be a cheer leader, but you need to convey confidence. “I know you’re feeling nervous and that’s really normal. I’m nervous when I try new things too. Let’s talk about a different time you were nervous or unsure and what you did to feel better that time.” You can also tell your child that you would never put your child in a situation where you weren’t confident that they would be safe.
2. Don’t overpack. Follow the packing list and don’t buy or send extra. It’s too overwhelming when kids come to camp with so much stuff that they can’t find anything. And stuff at camp typically comes home muddy or stained so sending older and less cared about items is a good rule!
3. Never interview for the negative…. before camp, at camp (in letters or on the phone) and after camp – keep your conversations open and positive. “Tell me about your top 3 favorite activities.” “Who were the kids you enjoyed spending time with this summer?” “Tell me about a new food you tried.”
4. READ, READ, READ… Read the information your camp directors send you. The information camps send to families is important and often, the information is time sensitive. The more informed YOU are as a parent/guardian, the better you can prepare your child for a successful summer.
5. Call camp! If you are anxious or have a question, rather than sitting at home worried, or rather than chatting with a friend, call camp directly. Camp professionals are ready to partner with you to help make sure your child is successful.
6. Choose a camp where you and your child will feel most comfortable. Sometimes, parents send their children to a camp just because “everyone” in town send their children to that camp, or it’s where Dad went…. but not every camp is right for every child. You should feel connected to the leadership at the camp so that you are comfortable making that call when you need to. Your child should also feel like the kids who attend their camp are children with whom they share interests and values.