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7 Survival Tips For Parents of First-Time Campers

Around the campfire

OMG — is your kid going to overnight camp for the very first time? Time to freak out!

Wait. I am totally kidding — though I suppose some of you already ran away, sobbing, to wrap your arms around your little one.

But for those of you still here, welcome! Sending your child to sleepaway camp for the first time really is a liminal moment. You’re standing on the threshold of a new parenting era. This is when you start to realize your kid is and can be separate from you (for an extended period of time), and that’s magic on both sides. By sending them to camp, you are giving them a gift. Your kid might not say it to you explicitly, but I will: thank you. Well played, parents!

But, I’m not going to lie: It’s not necessarily going to be easy, for either you or your kid. When I first sent my boys to overnight camp, I made mistakes, and so did they. But we switched camps (they no longer go together), and now they’re both going back for their fourth or fifth or something summer — who’s counting? — and they literally count down the days until they get to go.

As for myself, I’m not yet at the point where I’m ready to join the crowd of parents who dance the hora as the buses to camp pull out of the parking lot. But, well, when I drop off my sixth kid, let’s just say there may be some tailgating.

But enough about me. We’re talking about you! And your kid! Here are some tips to make the whole transition from day camp to overnight camp easier.

Pack with your kids.

You do not pack your kids’ duffle bags — this is a rookie error. Yes, packing for your kid comes from a place of love; you imagine that by packing everything, you’re preparing them for all the evil possibilities that await them, like all those ticks in the woods. But by packing for them, you are actually doing them a disservice. Let them see the list, let them help write their names on the stupid socks (or not — they’re going to get lost or destroyed anyway). Let your kids work a bit, because this camp thing, as you probably know, is a privilege. They need to understand that — and surely at least part of the point of sending them away is to convey the idea that you, the parent, are not their personal concierge, right?

Explain everything.

I’m going to give it to you straight: You need to show your kid how to use everything that is packed in their bags. For example, if you do not show them the bug spray and teach them how to use it, you might as well not send it at all. If you do not show them there is a little foil seal on the toothpaste, they might come home telling you that their teeth are green because the toothpaste was “broken.”  The uncomfortable truth is that many kids, mine included, are amazingly, jaw-droppingly clueless. I know this for a fact because, back in the day when I sent my 8-year-old to camp for the first time, I packed body wash rather than our usual bar of soap (because I had been warned that bars of soap would fall on the floor and get disgusting). But guess what? That body wash came home UNOPENED, dear friends. And he was away for a MONTH — ugh.  

Be clear with your expectations.

If you want to hear from your kid, tell them how often you expect them to write. Help them pre-address and pre-stamp envelopes before they go; I find it makes a real difference in numbers of letters you receive. But don’t stop there: Give them guidance about what you would want to hear from them. Otherwise, you will get an envelope stuffed with dead leaves and a note that says, “Hi Mommy! These leaves smell like root beer. Love, Your Kid.” (No, I did not make that up.) So, tell them what you’d like to hear about. In fact, for my kids’ first few summers, I wrote a little note inside their stationery clipboard giving them ideas about things I’d like to read about in their letters: their favorite activities, funny things that happened in their bunk, the worst thing the dining room serves, and so on.

Do not make promises you can’t or won’t keep. 

I am a big proponent of never saying anything to your kid like, “Well, if you have a terrible time, you can just come home.” No way, my friend. Let’s not even introduce that as an option — it can really mess with the entire experience. Instead, emphasize resilience, and work through potential scenarios: “If you felt homesick, what would you do?” “If you had a problem with a friend at camp, how would you handle it?” Don’t avoid discussing the possibility of homesickness out of fear the conversation might cause it; instead, help your kid to help herself if and when she needs to.

Try to meet other campers beforehand. 

Is your kid going to camp with a more experienced friend? Great! But if not, most camps will happily hook you up with another local kid who’s been before and can give your kid the proverbial 411. Other parents are great resources for you as well; they can give you the scoop on whether you really need to pack 17 washcloths (you don’t) or where to park on visiting day.

Be positive and upbeat.

You are a spin doctor. Tell them to make a list of things they hope to accomplish at camp this summer, and seal it in an envelope to wait for them when they come home.  Be excited! Convey the idea that even if things don’t go the way they want them to – maybe they aren’t in their bestie’s bunk, or maybe their favorite snack is no longer on offer at the canteen – that it will still be OK and maybe even better than expected.  Again, you’re giving them coping tools that they can take out and use when and if needed.

Taking your kid by the shoulders and telling them you will cry every day they are gone is not recommended. 

Hopefully, this seems obvious. But if you do feel like you will cry every day in the shower, email me and I will talk you through this. Because this is going to be great for all of you — yes, even you! Alternatively, if you are so over June’s chaos that you’re counting down the days until your kid leaves, I get that too — but take a deep breath and try to give some extra hugs for all the days you won’t be able to. Both you and your kid will be glad you did.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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