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  • Nick M. Teich, PhD, LCSW

Dear Parents & Guardians, Congratulations - You're Sending Your Child to Overnight Camp!

Dear Parents and Guardians,

Congratulations! You have made, or are about to make, one of the best decisions of your child's life: sending them to overnight camp.

There are few places left on earth where children can experience independence away from adult family members, practice conflict management skills, make new friends face-to-face (vs. online), and be without screens, social media, and all of the concerns that come with living in the digital age. Camp is one of those few precious places. Get ready for a major boost in confidence for your child.

You're nervous for them to be away. I get it. I'm a parent of two young children. It's hard. The world we live in can be a very scary place. What we should want for our kids is to be able to give them a place where fun, friends, independence, healthy conflict, and learning are the only things in front of them. A place that's their world and only theirs. That place is overnight camp.

Aside from being a parent, I'm also a former overnight camp director and social worker by training. I now consult with many different camps, which is a privilege. I love to be able to view camp through these many different lenses.

Since I am always thinking about child development, a recent article in New York Magazine caught my attention, entitled, "The Final Frontier for Helicopter Parents: Inside the Facebook and WhatsApp Groups Where Moms Arrange Playdates for their College Kids."

While most people might roll their eyes at the thought of a parent arranging a "playdate" for their college-age offspring, it's really about much more than that. It's about communities of parents and guardians that stir up anxieties, fears, and feelings in each other of "am I a good enough parent?" and "how do we help our children get ahead?"

Don't get me wrong; if you have the chance to connect with other parents and guardians from your child's camp, then that can be very helpful. Just remember to look toward those who have had their children at the camp for a while and can assuage your anxieties if they arise. Resist the urge to get into gossip or drama that sometimes occurs in these discussions. Instead, focus on the parents who can easily recite the many benefits and wonderful, fun things that your child is doing and accomplishing as you speak. If you have a legitimate major concern, of course, call the camp. But before you do, investigate and do some legwork to make sure it's not false information that has gotten caught up in the rumor mill. Again, reach out to those longtime camp parents for some guidance.

Trust should begin with the first conversation you have with your child's camp. Ask good questions and listen for good, well-thought-out answers. If camps don't get back to you in a timely fashion, seem to downplay safety, and/or appear to be cavalier about issues that are important to you or your child, then keep looking - there are so many camps eager to deliver a safe and great experience. In camps that are well-run, the vast majority of kids absolutely thrive. And when a child isn't thriving, the camp typically catches it and works on it with the child and their counselors, and calls parents for counsel if necessary. The trust has to be a two-way street in order to make it successful; make sure that you have told the camp everything that will enable them to be your teammate and give your child the best experience possible.

Still, your child is going to struggle with some things. Every moment won't be wonderful. For example, homesickness, or missing home, is a common occurrence. Camps are very well-aware of how to handle these issues. It is difficult for many parents and guardians to bear seeing their children struggle. But we all know that some struggle is very healthy, and it teaches us how to get through those moments in the future. Camp encourages going outside one's comfort zone by taking safe risks. There are not a lot of places that are doing that with kids on a routine basis.

So, if you haven't gotten a call from the camp and your anxiety is getting the worst of you because you're not directly connected to your child, what can you do? Write a letter (snail mail) to your child asking them how camp is going, mail it, and then go do something for you. Concentrate on your own self-care now that at least one of your children is spending time away at camp. Make a list of things you have wanted to do but might not have been able to because of your caretaking responsibilities, and start checking items off that list.

If the pull to check in at camp is very strong, then try writing an email once or twice a week (no more) to the camp director saying that you just want to check in on your child and make sure that all is well. Ask the director for a simple one or two-sentence email back just to make you feel at ease. Do not ask the director to go take a photo of your child and send it to you - it would inevitably be staged, and it's disruptive to the day. It is important to recognize that directors are busy doing the work of ensuring that your child and other children are well, and the more time they spend returning emails or phone calls that aren't absolutely necessary, the more time they're away from the program and campers.

Setting up these short email check-ins with a director can ease your anxiety while setting healthy boundaries. In setting healthy boundaries and allowing your child to experience the magic of camp, you are not only instilling a great deal of confidence and important life skills in your child, you are practicing letting go. That is self-care for you, as a parent/guardian, in a world where it's so often so hard to let go. Remember what a great decision you have made in letting your child go to camp. Remember the trust you have put in your child and the camp. Then, go treat yourself to an ice cream cone.

Child climbing rock wall while staff member has them on belay
Taking safe risks and gaining confidence is what camp is all about.

Nick Teich is an executive coach and consultant for camp directors across North America, helping them make their camps the best possible places for their campers and staff. He is the founder and was the longtime director of Harbor Camps in New Hampshire. He is also a social worker by training and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the effect of bullying in teenagers. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and two children.

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