Have a Happy Camper

Calm camp fears and cure complaints so your kid can get on with the fun.
By Patty Onderko



Recently I was looking through letters I’d sent my family from camp as a kid. “I hate this place,” read one. “There’s this girl here who thinks she is so cool, but really she’s MEEN,” read another. “I cry every day!” read almost all of them.

Funny, because for 20-some years, I’ve thought of camp as one of the best times in my life. I walked barefoot everywhere, until the soles of my feet were tougher than my Keds, and swam from one side of the lake to the other. I have memories of excitedly telling my parents about everything on the car ride home. How could I have been that unhappy?

“Because camp can be scary,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Homesick and Happy. “You’re away from your family for hours or days at a time. You have to get on a bus every day with kids you don’t know. You have to try things you’ve never done before. But we all learn to overcome our fears, and that’s part of what is incredible about camp.” Now that I’ve got two 6-year-old day campers of my own, I realize that all kids have at least one gripe that threatens to ruin their summer. But with these quick tricks, you can help your child have the mind-expanding, awesome time at camp he’ll look back on fondly, too.

Camp Complaint: “I hate camp!”

Steel yourself. Whatever the reason camp is supposedly killing your child, you’ll still probably have to comfort yourself more than him. “Children are resilient and they can learn a lot by coping with everyday distress,” says Chris Thurber, Ph.D., author of The Summer Camp Handbook. Just remind yourself of that as you load your whining child onto the camp bus every morning.

Come clean with the counselors. Camp staff don’t want an unhappy camper on their hands any more than you do. And counselors are trained to figure out what lies underneath this global gripe, says Thurber. If, say, your kid feels she’s a worse soccer player than the others, the counselors can work with her until she gets her confidence back. So let the staff know about the difficulties your child is having; she may not be speaking up at camp.

Stay calm. Whatever your child says, it’s important for you to “absorb the anxiety and reflect back calm,” says Thompson. That means assuring your kid that his fears are normal, but letting him know that he can overcome them. It means saying, “It’s going to be okay”—and believing it.

Know when to cave. “There are times when a camper’s anxiety is so severe that the only ethical thing to do is to take him out of camp,” says Thurber. “This should never be the first or second intervention and should never be labeled as quitting.” But if your child refuses to participate in most activities, it might be time to look for a better fit. The conversation should just be between you and the counselors. If your child knows that the possibility of bowing out exists, it may end up being the only option he’ll entertain.

Camp Complaint: “I’m not going to swim!”

Figure out what’s really wrong. “Kids have a lot of fears when it comes to water,” says Thompson. Your child could be afraid that there are snakes in the lake. Or he could be afraid of getting water in his eyes. Once you know what’s behind the refusal, you might be able to solve the problem by, say, watching a video about lake geology or buying a good pair of goggles.

Don’t get mad . . . When we freak out that our kid refuses to swim at swim camp, we actually create more anxiety around the situation. Instead, try saying: “I know you’re nervous. That’s normal. I was nervous about swimming at camp, too. But you can do this. It can be so much fun!”

. . . But resist the urge to over-empathize. Too many “I’m so sorry, sweeties” send your child the message that there is something to fear.

Make it mandatory. Thurber believes parents need to think of swimming, in particular, as non-optional. “Knowing how to swim well is an extremely important, life-saving skill,” he says. Treat swim class—or any other class you want your kid to participate in—like you do other non-negotiable activities. Don’t offer other options (“Well, maybe you could read while everyone else is in the pool”).

Camp Complaint: “I miss you sooooo much!”

Give her practice. The kids who get homesick the most are the ones with the least experience being away from home, says Thurber. If that describes your preschooler, start slow. An all-day, every-day camp might be too much. If your child does need to go to a full-time program, give her time away from home so she realizes that she can have fun and be safe without you. Have a babysitter take her somewhere for a day and send her to her grandparents’ for a sleepover.

Find out when homesickness strikes. Jill Tipograph, author of Your Everything Summer Guide & Planner, says that the blues happen at predictable intervals, like downtime. “Kids have time to brood,” she says, so pack a book or drawing pad to help keep him occupied, if allowed. Another rough one? Meals, when “kids are conditioned to being with their families,” she says. Talk about how exciting it will be for your child to eat with all his new buddies. Remind him that he can always sit next to a counselor if he wants.

Put on a happy face. Don’t betray your own sadness about being away from your child, which will only amp up her apprehension. It’s okay to be honest, says Thurber, but keep the message positive. Say, “I’m going to miss you, but I can’t wait to hear about everything at the end of the day.” Again, try not to over-empathize if your child cries when it’s time to say goodbye. Keep reminding her that you love her and that she will be okay.

Normalize her feelings. Thurber’s research shows that up to 95 percent of all kids experience some level of homesickness when they’re in a new environment away from home. Use that information to help your child feel less alone. Thurber suggests taking the shame out of homesickness with a script like this: “Almost everyone misses something about home when they are away. Homesickness is normal. It means there are lots of things about home you love.”

Camp Complaint: “I don’t have any friends!”

Give it time. Not being able to make friends is a huge fear. And that means that no amount of pep talks or hugs will make it go away. But time can. If your child has this complaint on the first or second day, don’t make a big deal about it. You can say, “Everyone worries about making friends, but camp is a great place to meet new buddies. After a few days, you’ll know more people.”

Dig down to the truth. Kids tend to globalize their problems, says Tipograph. “A child may say he has no friends, when what he means is that he hasn’t befriended one particular child.” So don’t assume the worst when you hear this common complaint, says Tipograph. It’s often just a starting point for a conversation in which your child can express his feelings about camp in general.

Provide some practical strategies. If your kids have trouble approaching peers, give them some ideas of ways they could initiate play. Your son could ask a potential friend if he’s read any Captain Underpants books. Your daughter could ask another child if she plays any sports besides tennis. Socializing is a skill that kids can learn if it doesn’t come naturally to them.

Camp Complaint: “I hate the bus!” (or “I don’t want to go to the bathroom at camp,” “The food is terrible,” or whatever!)

Be a sounding board and reflect back “You feel nervous about riding the bus” or “You’re not used to peeing in front of other kids.” But let your child know that she can get over these issues and enjoy her time. After that, just make sure your kid has all the supplies she needs for a safe, fun summer: sunscreen, water, appropriate clothes, and the rest of what the camp requires. And then . . .

Let the camp staff—and your child!—take it from there. That’s part of the beauty of summer camp, says Thompson. Not only do kids learn to play tennis or swim, braid a lanyard key chain, and roast the perfect marshmallow, they also learn to manage their emotions, relationships, and hang-ups on their own. And you learn that you can’t always solve your children’s problems for them—a good thing for both of you.


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