will your child's camp experience break your heart?

When my oldest daughter went to "sleep-away" camp for the first time, she was about 9  years old, in the summer between 3rd and 4th grade.

She was extremely excited to be going to an all girls camp that specialized in horseback riding.

Prior to making the decision for her to attend in the summer, we visited the camp (about 150 miles from our home), took a tour, met with the owners and made the decision together that this was definitely where she wanted to go. She was (and still is) a gregarious child, who made friends easily, and had never had problems being away from home overnight. She said goodbye to us casually, and although I was crying as we drove away, she was running off discovering the camp and making new friends, seemingly without a care in the world.

The camp did not allow parents or campers to contact each other, except in case of a bonafide emergency or health problem, and we did not plan to see each other until the two-week session ended. 

 Children did not routinely have cell phones in that era, and the kids did not have access to email. They were, however, encouraged to write letters.

The first and only letter I received from my daughter arrived on Tuesday of her second week (the weeks ran from Sunday to Saturday),  but was dated the first night of her camp stay and it began: "Dear Mommy, I am writing this letter, hiding under my blanket, holding a flashlight with tears rolling down my face, as I hug BigBear. I am so miserable that I cannot possibly stay here for two weeks..."

The paper was tear-stained, the ink had run a bit, and the envelope slightly crumpled.

I was so devastated that my baby was feeling lost and all alone, that I cried all night and told my husband we would have to rush out there to pick her up, despite all the warnings we had received from the camp that doing that would be the worst possible response to a common occurrence. My husband, having infinitely more sense than I did, declared that if something were really wrong, the camp would have contacted us. And so we waited (unbearably for me) until Saturday when we raced back to pick her up as early as possible.

I wouldn't receive much praise if I were writing a script for a reality show, because the ending of this story is ENTIRELY PREDICTABLE.

When we arrived my daughter was completely uninterested in seeing her parents, wanted no part of coming back home, and clearly had overcome her homesickness in rapid fashion. She was annoyed that we were the first parents from her group who had arrived. She pretended not to remember writing the heart-wrenching letter, and adding to my collection of gray hair and heartburn.

Sound familiar? I suspect that many families go through all sorts of agitation relating to sending their children away for the first time to camp.

It turns out there are some things you can do, to optimize your child's camp experience.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published new  guidelines to help parents and camp administrators adequately prepare to provide the best possible experience for children. A family-friendly description of the guidelines is available at the HealthyChildren.org website.

Some things that parents can do before the start of summer camp:

  • Know your child! and how well they might do with increased physical exercise, or other expectations of camp life
  • Make sure your child is up to date on all immunizations
  • Make sure he or she has had a recent health maintenance visit with a primary care provider
  • Involve  your child in the choice of camping venue and determining whether the experience should be a day-camp or an overnight away experience
  • Discuss homesickness in advance but remain positive about your child's ability to cope with it
  • Allow/encourage practice time away from home for your child
  • Don't make any plans to rescue your child in the case of homesickness--this makes it too easy for your child's confidnece to be undermined, and might encourage a plea to come home

The article also discusses things that the camp can do to provide an excellent, safe and health ful experience for campers, as well as presenting a section to guide primary care providers in coding appropriately for the work they may do during camp preparation.

The end of my story?

Well my daughter is all grown up now, with a college degree in theater, and a child of her own. I can't wait until she sends him to his first "away camp" experience, because I suspect that is when I will get my revenge.

Recent Comments

What a great story for first time camp parents! Your list of tips for preparing for camp is perfect, and we give a very similar list to our camp parents. Thank you for sharing!

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About Dr. Ackerman

Alice Ackerman, MD, MBA, FAAP, FCCM is the Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Carilion Clinic and Professor and Founding Chair of Pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Dr. Ackerman is recognized nationally as an expert in pediatric critical care.

She has been at Carilion Clinic since June of 2007. Her primary goals are to enhance the health care of children in the Roanoke Valley and Southwest Virginia, and is actively working to do this both as physician in chief of the children's hospital, as well as through involvement with many state-wide initiatives.

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