Camp season is coming up -- what should you do to get your kids (and yourself!) ready for this big change? Read on for our experts' tips on making summer camp a success for everyone involved.
1. Trust Your Child
When your child is at camp, allow him to solve his own problems or ask a counselor for help. Camp is a setting that allows your child to experience the real world in a safe environment. Kids learn quickly to rely upon themselves and the camp staff they trust instead of their parents. For sleepaway camps in particular, “Make sure [your kids] have slept away from home successfully, either at a grandparent’s, cousin’s, or friend’s home,” says David Fleischner, owner and director of Camp Scatico, a Brother-Sister resident camp in the upper Hudson Valley.
2. Be Prepared
Do you have a child who will be switching gears over the summer -- going from music camp one session to a sports camp the next, for instance? Since specialty camps are generally intensive, fast-paced, and include a packed schedule of activities, moving on from one niche camp to another can be challenging (kind of like returning to an office after a week’s vacation for us). Dr. Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist and author of The Summer Camp Handbook (Perspective Publishing), says, “It’s easy to leave things to the last minute, but that puts a stressful cloud on the camp experience.” Packing early (with your child) or sending sporting equipment ahead, for example, can go far in easing into camp. “When you’re positive and calm, it sets a really nice tone for an enjoyable camp experience,” Thurber says.
3. Loosen Up About Food
At sleepaway camp, kids often have access to unlimited food at mealtime -- and treats from their fellow campers. “It’s the kid’s job to test,” says Dr. Laura Jana, author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup. If your child comes home from a sleepover or camp and tells you that he ate five cupcakes for breakfast, “it doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent,” she says. You can take the opportunity to teach your kid how to make healthy choices. Becky Sarah, M.P.H., agrees. “The ideal thing, of course, is to choose a camp that serves healthy food. But this is also the time to trust the parenting you’ve already done. If the child is used to a healthy diet, she will probably be more likely to make healthy choices at camp. But she may also take this opportunity to try out all the things not available at home. Talk to your child about the fact that eating only refined carbohydrates and sugar, especially for breakfast, can make a person feel low-energy and grouchy. Your child may still try that out, but she might also realize it is not making her feel good.”
Specialty camps are especially well suited for new campers, as many of them have a constantly revolving roster of participants, giving youngsters many opportunities to meet new people -- and not much time for cliques to become entrenched. “We have some new children coming each week, so every Monday we create a way for new kids to be integrated right away,” says Jordan Snider, the director of Future Stars Day/Night Camps. “My advice would be to find a program that offers activities that children enjoy, whether it’s a sport or a craft or a skill, so that the child can go there for that purpose,” Snider suggests. “They won’t feel the pressure of making friends initially. It’s kind of like going to college: You’re choosing it for the majors or the programs. The friendship part follows.”
How can you make sure the camp arrangements you make now for the summer will guarantee that a caregiver who has become a part of the family will still be available in the fall? Well, there are no guarantees -- but parents who have been in your shoes have shared their wisdom of experience. The consensus: Be open and communicate early, realize you may need to spend a little more to keep someone on board, and be as flexible as possible.
Manhattan mom Lyss Stern, who sent her kids to camp full-time for the first time last year, told her caregiver of five years that her hours would be shortened and that she should look for a summer job -- but Stern also reached out to other friends to see if they needed part-time help. When getting extra hours for her nanny elsewhere proved unsuccessful, Stern adjusted the nanny’s schedule; instead of coming in early and leaving on the early side, she would come in late and leave later, which worked well because the Sterns often attend work-related events on weeknights.
Everyone’s situation is different, so ask yourself what is okay to forfeit and what is critical to maintain. And be direct. “If you talk about it vaguely when there’s no plan in place, your nanny may assume she’s going to lose her job and start looking elsewhere,” says Jann Reissman, assistant director at Camp Ramaquois in Rockland County, who often fields phone calls from anxious moms who don’t know what to do in such situations.
Check out our camp resource round-up for all kinds of advice and info, a must-see if your child is heading off to camp this summer.