Parent Dos and Don'ts for a Successful Summer at Day or Overnight Camp
Ellen WarrenWhen your children go to camp this summer, will you really let them go? Camp directors see “kid-sick” parents far more than homesick campers, says Bob Ditter, a licensed therapist who specializes in summer camp and consults for the American Camp Association (ACA) and other youth development agencies.
“Children are resourceful, resilient and often more ready to attend camp than parents are ready to let them go,” says Mike Youse, Executive Director of Camp Kirchenwald, operated by the Lutheran Camping Corporation of Central Pennsylvania. “Camp leaders are caring and experienced professionals who want children to succeed at camp and have established policies with that goal in mind,” Youse says. “Parents should be positive and affirming about camp. It creates problems when parents don’t follow visitation guidelines or rules to not pack candy, cell phones or electronic games. It’s also not helpful when a parent says, ‘If you get homesick or don’t like camp just call us and we’ll come get you.’”
Matt Haar, Camping Chairman for the Boy Scouts of America Keystone Area Council, which runs Hidden Valley Scout Reservation adds, “The biggest problem we see is parents who cannot disconnect from their kids. Preparation is the key. Your child is much more likely to enjoy camp if you spend time together preparing, from making sure he has all necessary gear to helping him know what to expect. Explain why camp will be a positive experience. Encourage kids to try new activities. And if the parent or child has questions or concerns, make sure to discuss them with camp leadership before camp starts.”
“Some parents experience separation anxiety themselves and feel a strong inclination to visit during a camp session, which is almost always a big mistake that adversely affects both campers and parents, says Tom Scarsella, General Manager of Camp Manatawny, a Christian camp in Douglassville, Berks County. Scarsella remembers a parent who arrived unannounced halfway into the camp week. “The child was doing just fine up to that point, but when she saw her parent, she insisted on going home. Camp was never a part of that child’s experience again,” he says.
Parents should ask themselves whether their presence, or a cell phone, will do more harm than good. “It’s tempting for parents to ‘hover’ with cell phones because of the way we communicate today,” says Scarsella. But Haar cautions, “Kids can’t fully appreciate camp if their eyes are glued to a cell phone and their ears are clogged with an iPod.”
Open communication between parents and camp directors is critical to creating happy campers. Haar recalls a parent who complained endlessly that her child’s Adirondack-style shelter at camp didn’t have electricity. “She never asked if the shelters had electricity or said why the child would need it. People camp without electricity quite often and many prefer it that way. Unfortunately this child’s view of camping is probably forever skewed because of his mother’s fixation on electricity,” says Haar.
Parents should also trust that at camp, like at home, rules exist for good reasons. Youse describes the secret “care package” of candy and food that parents had hid in their child’s duffel bag, with a note instructing the child not to tell the counselor and to share the candy with other campers so that they wouldn’t tell either. “The campers kept their secret until a skunk was drawn into the campsite by the aroma of hidden wrappers and crumbs,” Youse says. “We had to evacuate the campers to another camp site, and then the kids got mad at each other because some had lied about the food while others finally told about it. The remaining candy was confiscated and returned to the parents at the end of the camp session. Finally, when the counselor told the parents about the problems the package had caused, the parents became confrontational, setting a poor example for their own child and other campers and parents.”
“Parents sometimes fail to know or understand the dynamics of camp operations and have unrealistic expectations,” says Scarsella. He suggests that parents tour camps in advance with their children, write letters to children, alert the camp to any medical or behavioral issues, ask questions to allay fears, and encourage children to make new friends. Youse adds, “Most camps have programs designed to introduce children to each other and to activities they have never tried before. Kids should be encouraged to expand their horizons and make the most of those opportunities.”
Ellen Warren works with the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.