Is My Child Ready for Sleepaway Camp?

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“How do I know if my child is ready for overnight camp?”

It’s one of the most common questions we hear at Alpine Camp for Boys. Parents are really asking two questions: “Is he ready” and “Am I ready?” I’m not sure I can help you with the second! But answering the first one will go a long way in helping you answer the latter.

First, the camp director “speak” you expect. Every child is different. They all mature at different ages. Boys and girls develop at different times. You’ve heard all of that, right? Of course — it’s all true. But it’s not very helpful. Let’s dig deeper.

5 Questions to Ask

What does your child say?

This seems simple and obvious. But so many of us forget to include our children in the conversation. They, after all, will be the ones going away to camp! Find a time where neither of you are distracted and tell them about camp. Young children may not know all that sleepaway camp entails.

Here are a few tips for the conversation:

When talking about camp (or anything, right?) tone is everything.

So many of us influence our kids not through what we say but how we say it. Some of us had amazing camp experiences. We may be very excited about sending our children to “our camp” at the earliest age allowed. They may not feel the same way. Be careful not to make your kids feel guilty if they don’t share your enthusiasm right off.

If you had a positive experience at summer camp definitely tell them about it!

Tell him/her stories about friends you made or fun activities. Let your child look at camp brochures or websites and watch the videos. Then ask very open ended, simple questions. Questions like, “what do you think about that video?” or “did you see anything in the brochure that you’d like to try”. Be careful not to ask leading questions: “Doesn’t that look like the most fun place ever?” or “Wouldn’t you want to try that if Tommy and Billy are going?

Or maybe you had a bad camp experience. Or you didn’t go to camp at all.

Maybe it was an unaffordable luxury or simply not a priority in your family. To make matters worse, your spouse was a camper, still remembers all the camp songs and cheers, and your in-laws want to pay. All your close friends are sending their kids to this camp. And it will change their life. Best summer ever. All those things. But you’re not buying it. Sound familiar? That’s perfectly fine. Advice: don’t talk with your spouse or friend who’s all in. Find someone who did attend camp but is more objective in your life. Or maybe an older friend who sent her children to this camp. Ask her about camp. Be open to what she has to say.

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For our skeptics, be aware how you talk about camp around your kids.

Again, leading questions are usually not productive: “Do you think you could stand to be away from me for that long?” or “Do you think you’d get too homesick”. Your intent may be good. And what he may hear is that you don’t believe he can do it. Whether your child goes away to camp this summer, next summer, or never, we all agree that we want our children to know we believe in them.

Finally, remind your children that as parents you will make the final decision about when and where they will go to camp.

And that you will always do what you believe is in their best interest.

2. Has she “practiced” camp?

Has she spent the night out before with family and friends? How did it go? Spending the night out is a great way to prepare for camp.

If not, schedule some practice. Yes, you can practice going away to camp! Schedule an overnight with a grandparent. Plan it a few weeks in advance and talk about it with her. Let her be involved in the packing. Talk about what she should do if she gets scared or is missing you (tell Grandma, sing, or say a prayer). And then let her talk about it afterwards.

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3. What can he do by himself?

This is where we get real practical. Can he tie his shoes? Take a shower on his own? Cut meat? We made a list for our girls of 4 things they had to accomplish before going to camp. And then we practiced them. Not only did it help them with very real life skills but it also gave them a tremendous amount of confidence in themselves. And it was reassuring to us as parents that they wouldn’t go hungry or be dirty or go a whole month without brushing their teeth!

A larger skill they need for camp is the ability to speak up for themselves. This takes practice for our part as parents. We are used to being our child’s advocate at all times, especially with younger kids. Even in grammar school often it’s the parents who communicate with the teachers about issues (and that’s not all bad).

At camp, kids will need to be their own advocate. Talk with your child about this prior to camp (as an aside, this should be a continual conversation we have with our children in life in general. Camp is great practice!). If he’s hurt or sick, he must tell a counselor or stop by the Health Center. Some campers at Alpine are afraid to do this. Or they are having too much fun to slow down and do it!

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If something is bothering your camper emotionally, he should tell someone. Talking about homesickness or a camper conflict is the only way the adults at camp will know to help. And that’s exactly what staff are here to do.

We should also tell our children that if anyone at camp says or does anything that makes them uncomfortable or seems inappropriate, they should tell an adult immediately.

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4. How does he do at school and in group activities?

Emotionally, school and after school activities most closely resemble camp for your child. Ask a teacher or coach how he does with his peers socially. Most child professionals have a large sample size for comparison. Is he behind developmentally? Ahead? Right on track?

For younger children, emotional and physical stamina are crucial. After a full day of school and activities are they falling apart at the seams by 7:30? Or just plain falling asleep? If so, they might not be ready for a sleepaway camp experience. Most camps start around 7 in the morning and don’t stop until 8 or 9 at night (with some breaks throughout the day). It’s nonstop social interaction with not a ton of privacy. If your son or daughter is more introverted that does not mean camp is off the table. You may need to set expectations and do a bit more coaching on carving out small bits of quiet time each day.

5. What do the directors at camp say?

Find out about the camp. When do most kids start? What is the counselor to camper ratio? How do they deal with homesickness? What basic skills are necessary to attend the camp? Is the camp equipped to handle special needs? Or restrictive diets?

At Alpine, for example, we have about a 4 to 1 camper/counselor ratio. Our staff are trained and equipped for things like ADHD or bedwetting. We are not able to accommodate campers who may need one on one supervision or need around the clock monitoring for chronic health conditions. There are camps that specialize in just about everything. The American Camp Association, by whom we are accredited, is a helpful resource when searching for a camp to suit your child’s needs.

American Camp Association

I recommend that you ensure any camp you are considering is accredited by the ACA, a voluntary step that helps camps meet and exceed industry standards.

Learn About the ACA

Thinking through these questions will give you more confidence about your decision, one way or the other. For some, maybe you’ll decide to wait one more year. For many it’s time to start packing those trunks. You are making an investment in your child that will pay off for the rest of his life! See you at camp!!

Glenn Breazeale Director, Alpine Camp for Boys