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Bunk Notes – Listening To Your Child When It Comes To Sleep-Away Camp

camp"Do you have anyone away?" "Are you looking for next summer?" "How is he/she doing at camp?" If you have elementary school-age children, chances are you've heard or participated in a conversation recently about sleep-away camp.

Overnight camping has been a uniquely American tradition since the 1880's, when many of the full-summer camps started as a way to get kids out of the city for the summer while parents worked. In Scarsdale and surrounding communities, sending a child off to camp for the summer can feel like a rite of passage -- especially for parents who have positive memories of their own camp days.

To be sure, there are wonderful aspects to sleep-away camp. Most have a "no-phone" policy, which gives kids a needed break from the social media world. Kids spend time outside, live with others, and have opportunities to learn new skills, make friends, and gain confidence and independence. Additionally, camp provides a temporary and sanctioned break from full-time parenting.

But sleep-away camp, especially the full seven-week program, is not for every child and every family, and certainly not for every child at the same age. There are many ways for kids to grow and learn during the summer. And pressuring or even forcing a child to attend sleep-away camp when they may not be ready or truly don't want to can do more harm than good.

Summer Options

Many of the traditional day camps change their programs as the kids get older to offer more independence and many even have short overnight trips. Some take their campers to actual sleep-away camps to provide a glimpse into what it feels like to attend. If your child is truly done with "day camp" but wants to stay close to home, there are specialized sports camps, arts camps, and other options, some for the full summer and some that run for a week or two. After "graduating" from day camp, my kids participated in sports camps at local colleges, a circus camp, and even a week of Italian cooking camp at Chef Central.

If a child is ready to go away but not for seven weeks, there are shorter options too. My daughter spent two summers late in elementary school at a wonderful arts-focused day camp, broken up by a week-long sleep-away gymnastics program. She experienced living in a dorm room with another child and making decisions on her own for a period of time that felt comfortable to her, and when she came back to school in the fall, she was able to join in any sleep-away camp conversations by talking about hers.

Don't Forget Grandma!

In many places, it's the norm to stick kids on a plane or a bus to go stay with Grandma or cousins for a period of time, whether they live in another state or another country. This is a wonderful option, as it allows your kids and your parents (or siblings) to form their own relationships (without you in the middle). You get the break, and your kids get to spend time away from home but still with family.

Normal Jitters

There are times when a child really does want to go away, but bursts into tears at the bus stop. The best way to handle this is to think back to how the decision was made. Was it truly your child leading the decision to go? Has he stuck with it leading up to the morning of departure? If that is the case it's probably a normal case of the jitters and you can explain that most kids feel the same way. Give him a big hug, (hide your own tears) and assume he will be fine once he settles in to the experience. (That goes for visiting day too. One of my sons began sobbing when there were still two hours left to spend with us, but when I asked him directly if he wanted to stay at camp, without hesitation he nodded through his tears.)

What if your child is truly miserable? More often than not, this happens in a situation where the child was hesitant to begin with, or even at times expressed that he or she didn't want to go, and was convinced to try it. While others may disagree, I would never force a truly unhappy child to stay at camp, even if it messes up your summer plans!! It's not worth it. Take him home. Your child needs you, and needs to know he (or she) is not a failure because he didn't stay at camp. It may have been a bad fit, he may not have been ready, he may just be homesick – who knows? The reasons will come out eventually, and in the process, you give your child the gift of unconditional support. Don't worry about your son or daughter being bored at home, or about "next year". You will figure it out together.

A Note About Homesickness

Homesickness is a physical feeling, and it is totally normal. Kids can feel homesick even if they truly love camp and want to be there. And often (lucky for you) when they go to write you a letter, they think about home, which then brings on a huge wave of homesickness...and guess what they write about?? If you feel like your child really is happy at camp but you get a bad letter, don't panic.

Speak to the camp directors to check in. More often than not, they will set your mind at ease. It helps also to talk about homesickness with your child before they go. Together, you can write down some suggestions for when the feeling strikes – for example: get involved in another activity, go to sleep, talk to a counselor – and they can pull out the list when they need it.

Explain that most kids feel homesick at camp at some point, and that it really just means that they have wonderful loving relationships at home – a positive thing!

Let Your Child Lead

In the end, the most important thing is to take cues from your child. You may have always pictured your daughter in your camp colors leading her color war team in the next generation, and that's a hard image to let go.

But the beauty of summer is that nothing is mandatory. Think of it as a time for kids to explore different parts of themselves, and train yourself to really listen with your head and your heart to what they are saying and feeling.stonberg

Your daughter (or son) may ultimately wind up at your "alma mater," or she many not, but the fact that you gave her the space to decide on her own will go much further in the long run for her confidence and your relationship.

Author Julie Stonberg is a clinical social worker with a private practice in Hartsdale. Her three children did eventually enjoy full summer camping experiences, but it was a unique journey for each.

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