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Is Sleep Away Camp Right for Your Child?

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Recently I have been getting some questions about sleep away summer camps. I thought a little Camp Q & A might be helpful.

Camps are a rite of passage, but how can parents determine the right one?

Once a parent gets beyond finding a camp that matches their child’s interests, I would talk to the camp director. Ask, “How do you make sure that each of the campers is doing well and is not feeling lonely or isolated in any way?”

When I was a counselor at the Concordia Language Villages, we had a daily staff meeting. The first agenda item every day was, “Who has a kid to discuss?” We would then pool notes on any kid we saw that might need some extra support or guidance. One counselor might say, “I’m worried about Ella in my cabin. She doesn’t seem to be making any friends,” only to have another counselor say, “She was having a ball down at the lake today jumping off the float. She was with Julia.” The next day we would check in on her again. Of course, we recognized that some kids were struggling with homesickness, but what we knew from years of experience was that these kids would be fine around the midpoint of camp—and at the end of the session, they were the ones clinging to us, bawling their hearts out that they didn’t want to leave.

How young is too young for overnight?

This is a very individual question. Bold, easy going kids who have had lots of mini experiences sleeping over with relatives or at friend’s home are probably ready by age 7 or 8 to do a week-long program. Without any prior experiences, you probably want to wait until 9 or 10, though going with a sibling, cousin or friend can also make a difference. Kids who do well with a one-week program will benefit greatly the following summer from a two-week program. Unexpectedly, if you have a child who is very slow to warm up to new experiences, a 2-3 week program can be a better experience than one week. With the one week program, a child only just begins to get used to the new setting and hardly has any time to enjoy it before going home.

Also, parents play a big role in transmitting confidence that their children are going to do fine. Often the kids are more worried about their parents at home worrying about them than they are actually feeling nervous or scared themselves. Just like when dropping a child off at preschool, it is essential for parents to be truly excited for their kids and maybe even say things like, “I’m going to put in extra hours at work this week so I have more time for you when you get home.”

What kinds of questions should parents be asking when looking?

Look for an American Camp Association accredited camp. The process for becoming accredited is sufficiently rigorous, and assures health and safety for both the campers and the staff.

Questions to ask the camp director:

• What if any charges have been brought against the camp?

• Have there ever been any allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment?

• Have campers been sent home? For what reasons? How often has that happened?

• What plan do you have in place to attend to the social/emotional needs of the campers?

• What is the camp’s policy on access to electronics/email/cell phones, etc.?

(I recommend AGAINST any program that allows kids to have access to electronic devices. With daily and easy access to their parents, kids never get the “away from home” experience that is such an essential part of a sleep-away camp.)

By asking the questions above, you should have good gut instincts about the quality of experience your child will have. Ideally, you can send your kids to programs with the recommendation of someone you trust, but it would be a shame to miss out on a great camp for your kid just because you don’t know anyone who has gone there. The bottom line is do your due diligence, but don’t let fears about sleep-away camp keep you from saying yes to one of the most magical experiences we can make available to our kids.

Award winning parent educator, coach and author Elisabeth Stitt supports parents by giving them the confidence they need to be effective through her weekly newsletter, workshops and webinars and one-on-one coaching. She wants parents to know that parenting is a skill that can be taught, learned and practiced.

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