Second Time Around
Q. My 8-year-old son is going to give sleepover camp a try again this year. But last year did not go well. We ended up having to pick him up after just one week. He says he wants to go, and even seems excited about it. But that was also true last time. What can I do to prepare him for homesickness and help him learn how to be away from home on his own?
A. Despite the fact your son stayed at camp only one week last summer, support enthusiastically his interest in returning this summer. He's a year older, and he's an experienced camp-goer. The likelihood is great he'll stay longer and have more fun this year. Coming home after one week wasn't a failure; maybe that's all most 7-year-olds should be required to manage. Commend your son's willingness to make the journey to camp again.
Tips to reduce homesickness:
Enlist a friend. Talk to the parents of your son's friends to see if a friend can go with him. With a buddy along he'll have a readily available antidote for long days and lonely nights.
Prepare together. When choosing which camp to attend, what to pack, and how long to stay, plan the venture together. Whenever kids can be part of the decision-making process, they're more likely to succeed because of the intellectual and emotional investment.
Encourage phone calls. Let your son know he can call any time. Buy him a cellular phone if you like. Connected by phone doesn't mean connected by the umbilical cord. Talking daily may provide the necessary link to make it through each day.
Inquire about concerns. Listen to any apprehensions your child voices, offer an understanding and empathetic ear, then provide specific suggestions, while exuding confidence that he has everything necessary to make the most of the camp experience.
Don't dwell on last year's experience. Doing so might well up past anxieties. See this year as a clean slate with new opportunities and exciting adventures.
Offer a realistic view. Let him know that there may be moments when he's sad and that being away from home poses challenges for every child. Suggest that if he feels lonely he can either talk to his friend, a counselor, or call home.
Recommend a non-competitive camp. Unless your son naturally enjoys stiff competition, suggest a camp that focuses on fun, play, creativity, cooperation, and interdependence. High levels of competition can cause anxiety and stress which might negatively impact his camp experience.
Realize that camp isn't for every child. If your child goes off to camp again this summer only to return home early, resist reading too much into the situation. Maybe your son just doesn't fit into the culture of camp life, which doesn't mean he won't succeed in other environments or experiences.
Parents send their children to camp for a variety of reasons: to develop autonomy, a stronger sense of self, an extended set of social skills, and a feel for teamwork. These qualities may or may not be acquired at camp and they may also be developed elsewhere. If parents keep the camp experience in proper perspective, children will too.