I received this question a while back.  It’s one I frequently hear.  First, let’s hear from Ann.  And then my response to her.

Dear Dr. Cale:
I am listening to my kids talk about the summer. My oldest wants to go camping. My 12-year-old says she wants to stay at home and relax. (Just so you know, that means to watch TV, play on her IPad and swim in the pool).  Here’s my question:  Is it worth pushing the issue of summer camp? My husband and I debate this every summer.
– Ann from Clifton Park

Dear Ann:
Your question is a relatively common one. Many parents express mixed feelings about summer camps. These mixed feelings come with many questions.

(Keep in mind: My response here is not an effort to guide you in the selection of a camp. Instead, my purpose here is to address your question about the value of summer camps, and how best to prepare your kids for them.)

What Are the Benefits of Summer Camp?

Summer camp affords kids many opportunities. Here are the ones that seem most valuable.

1.  FUN:  Kids get to have real-life fun: Most camps focus on creating pleasurable experiences for children. The day is often filled with a range of activities, designed to stimulate children in a variety of ways.

2.  STRUCTURE:  Their day continues to remain structured: Not only do camps focus on having fun, but also the fun is provided within the context of a structure and routine. Kids are not allowed to simply free flow throughout their day and they can’t sleep in until noon. The reality is that this adjusts to school routines an easier one in the fall.

3.  GROWTH:  Kids usually get to learn something: Many camps not only provide exposure to traditional activities, but kids get an opportunity to learn new skills. They experience new activities and engage in events that they may have backed away from in the past.

4. FRESH START:  Kids show up without a history: One of the real advantages for children is that they show up at summer camp without a real history. Even if they are known from last year, that memory is often distant. So, whether they have been a star or the classroom geek, no one really knows that. It is an opportunity to start over, experience a new set of friends, and redefine how they will be with their peers.

5.  INDEPENDENCE:  Children feel a sense of independence: As a parent, you inevitably make many decisions to nurture independence. Summer camp can be a remarkably powerful voice of support for their sense of independence. They rarely spend extended time apart from parental guidance. Summer camp can be an entirely new, life-changing situation.

6.  PREPARATION:  A word of caution: Kids need to be prepared for such a transition. If children have never spent extensive time away from their parents, summer camp is not the time to simply force them to do it. Parents need to provide children with a gradually evolving set of experiences that teaches them that “you are OK” even if Mom and Dad are not around.

I suggest that you spend a few weekends away, later leading to full weeks for Mom and Dad to go on vacation and the children to stay with relatives. These short breaks are great learning experiences for children.

How To Ease Kids Into the Summer Camp Experience!

Here are a few suggestions to help ease kids into the summer camp experience.

Be Decisive, Not Controlling:  Take a strong position. Assuming that you have prepared your children through opportunities to stay with their grandparents and to be independent of your contact daily, it is important to make a parental decision about whether or not your kids are ready for camp. Many children who most need these experiences are the children who will say no if given the opportunity.

Be Open to Input:  Allow your kids to have input about the type of camp experience they would like. Review the information with the kids. Go over the various options available with your children. Perhaps they will not be the final decision maker; however, you do want to give them a sense that their input is valued.  If they are completely opposed, listen to their concerns, but assure them that you would not do anything that would harm them.  Do not linger on any strong resistance, or this will dominate every discussion.

Immunize Them from Homesickness:  Your kids may get homesick, but let them know that they can handle it. Very few of us travel away from home for extended periods of time and do not miss being in our routine with friends and family. To normalize this experience for them. Let your kids know that homesickness is a part of the experience. Let them know that it is important not to dwell on the feeling, or else it will ruin their experience.

Infuse Certainty:  The more you convey your sense of certainty that your kids can handle this experience, the more they will be better prepared to deal with it. Your children’s sense of confidence will resonate with what you convey. This is particularly true if you put most of your energy into the excitement and little into the fears and anxiety.

When Fears Arise:  When children express fears and worries about going to summer camp, do spend some time helping them to problem solve and to focus on the pleasurable aspects. However, don’t keep doing this over and over. Don’t make it a daily routine. If you do so, you will only see that fear and anxiety grow and their experience will be tainted by these negative emotions.

Finally, Encourage Adventure:   Summer camp is an opportunity for kids to step out of their box. Encourage them to do something different. Encourage them to seek roles of leadership. Encourage them to be more helpful, to be more responsible, to help someone who looks like they need help, and to be a friend to someone who needs a friend.

Let them know that it’s all for fun and learning and growing. If they happen to be good at something new, such as a sport that they haven’t tried before, then that’s great. If they happen to be lousy, just remind them it’s just for fun.

Please keep in mind:  Your children always follow your lead.  If you have trepidation, they will likely respond to this underlying anxiousness.  For most children, the biggest threat to a great experience at summer camp is not getting there at all!  Follow these steps, and that will not happen to your family.