Summer camp can be a tough adjustment, especially for first-timers, because it involves meeting new people and taking part in new activities in a new environment.

Jeffrey Thompson, Star Tribune

Boys from the Dakota cabin enjoyed poking their campfire during a wilderness cookout at YMCA Camp Ihduhapi near Loretto, Minn.

RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER • Star Tribune file,

How parents can prepare children – and themselves – for summer camp

  • Article by: William Hageman
  • Chicago Tribune
  • July 7, 2013 - 1:47 PM


Summer camp can be a wonderful experience for kids. It gets them out of the pigeonholes they can get stuck in at school, giving them a clean slate and an opportunity to grow.

But camp can be a tough adjustment, especially for first-timers, because it involves meeting new people and taking part in new activities in a new environment.

It also can be an adjustment for parents.

If you’re sending your kids off to camp for the first time, talk to other parents whose children have been there before. Don’t talk to your kids about any concerns you might have; that can make matters worse.

“Kids are incredibly intuitive,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. “If they’re sensing you’re fretful or nervous, one of two things can happen: [They may think] ‘I may want to go to camp, but I’m so worried about you that I need to stay home.’ The other thing is they absorb your fear: ‘There must be a reason for Mom or Dad to feel like this.’ ”

Smith said that being a good parent means helping a child grow to be independent and resilient. And camp is a perfect venue to foster that self-reliance.

“They need that to be successful adults,” she said. “If I hold my child back from that, I’m holding them back from proper development.”

Changes carry over

Roger Friedman and his wife, Roz Beroza, are co-directors of Echo Hill Ranch, a residential youth camp in Medina, Texas. Friedman, who also is a psychologist, sees camp as an extraordinary opportunity for growth.

“The child has to manage their environment without parents or loved ones helping them,” he said. “That is a huge developmental task, and to manage it they have to do things they never do at home.”

But that can be another issue.

He tells the story of an 8-year-old camper who was away from home for the first time and spent three weeks at Echo Hill.

“It was the first time he ever made his bed or collected his clothes or put them in a drawer,” Friedman said. “But the big development was when he gets up, he makes his bed. The afternoon before the end of camp, I see him at dinner and I say, ‘Max, your mother is going to be so excited to find out you can make your own bed now.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘But I’m not going to tell her.’ I said, ‘Why? She’d be so happy.’ And he says, ‘Because she’d fire the maid.’ ”

Some children, he said, would rather not disrupt their routines at home. Thus, they do learn skills, but they take them underground rather than demonstrate them to the family. They employ them when having a sleepover at a friend’s house but not in their own home.

Celebrate effort

Smith said that when parents notice a positive behavioral change because of camp, they should reinforce it, using a process she calls “claim it and name it.”

A child could be helping more around the house, showing more respect for adults, treating siblings differently. They are to be encouraged.

“Tell them, ‘I noticed how you were working with your brother the other day, and I’m proud of you.’ ‘I saw how you made your bed,’ ” she said. “Don’t just say [you’re] proud, name it. If you see them trying something new that a year ago they wouldn’t try, tell them, ‘I like the way you stepped up. I like the way you took on responsibility.’ You name it. Let them claim it.”

Smith says camp counselors often see kids who have struggled in a school environment because they may not have confidence or may be reluctant to even ask for help. But at camp, it’s about participating, and it’s OK to make mistakes or ask for help.

“We celebrate all efforts,” she said. “We celebrate initiative. If you can have those experiences where you do something you didn’t think you can do, and people cheer you on, that confidence doesn’t stay at camp. It stays in your heart and mind, and it’s a steppingstone.”

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