Advice for Camp Parents in the New Year

Happy New Year!  As we turn the calendar page to 2014 the Aloha Foundation blog resolves to be more consistent than it was in the final months of 2013.  With your participation, the Aloha Camps Blog can help us build an increasingly connected community of camp families, informing and educating one another about the joys and challenges of raising capable, confident, resilient children.  Please enjoy the first post of 2014!

Loving counselorWhat do you tell your kid when she asks whether she can go home if she doesn’t like it?

By my second Hiver, I knew that the first year of going to camp follows a predictable cycle.

In November she lost her mind with happy when we confirmed that she was signed up for camp in July. From November through May she was completely unambivalent.  Camp was going to be awesome! Then, the first week of June she had some questions about the food.  Second week of June she wanted to know whether she really did have to wear socks (she hates socks). Third week of June she needed lots of information about bears, thunder storms, and forest fires.  And what if she didn’t make any friends?

As a parent, I go through pretty much the same cycle.  By the time she’s at “what-if-I-don’t-make-any-friends” I’m at, “how’s-she-going-to-fall-asleep-without-our-evening-cuddles?”

For most of us, this is where our first instinct is to tell the kid:  “If you don’t like it, you can just come home.”

Counslor funThe problem with that is: 1)  it opens the door that you’re not completely sure the kid is going to love it, and that little bit of doubt lingers in her head and gets bigger the more anxious she gets as the date approaches;  2)  it gives her a very either/or vision of success:  “if I don’t love it, I can go home.”  So the minute she is unhappy, she thinks it’s time to go home.

By my second kid, I was a pro and when the mid-June panic set in, I was ready.

“What if I hate it and want to come home?” she asked.

“Oh you’ll definitely want to come home at least once or twice!  When you’re away from home and you have a frustrating day that you think, ‘I want to go home’ — everyone does that.  You just go find something fun to do and it passes, no big deal.”

That held her off for another couple of days.  Then:

“No … I mean what if I really hate it?  If I’m crying all the time and I don’t want to be there any more?  Can I call you?  Can I come home?”

camper joy“Gosh I can’t imagine that would happen!   Hive is awesome!” I tell her. “But if you’re ever somewhere that you’re really unhappy and not okay,  your counselors would call me and we would work together to figure out what wasn’t working.  They wouldn’t call me to come get you, they’d call me to help figure out how to help you stay.”

For the rest of June and into July, I stick to variations of this answer. It encourages her and gives her realistic expectations.  Most importantly, it reassures her that I am not in the least bit worried, and that her few negative feelings are normal and not indicative of a bigger problem.

Of course, I am not telling her what I am repeating quietly to myself, as often as necessary:  If I got a call that she was not ok, I would get to her so fast her head would spin.

In four years and two campers I have never gotten that call.

In early July, I start to let her know that the actual drop-off at camp could be a little challenging.  It is normal to cry when we separate.  It is normal for that moment to be a little sad or even scary.  I will leave anyway, I tell her, and it will get much better right after I’m gone when she’s off to have fun.

And then the time comes:  I make the drive to Fairlee for the drop-off.   It is never as hard as I thought it would be.  Because she is ready, because she wants to do this,  because it goes as I said it would.  I kiss her, she is sad, I leave anyway.  She turns herself to the business of having fun.

As with most parenting, I think it’s actually harder on me.   I miss her tons, I stalk the mail truck, I obsess waiting for pictures.   Through it all they’re having a blast and not thinking about me very much.

In fact, the worst tears come in August when they sob their goodbyes to people they have known only a few weeks — far more devastated to leave them than they were to leave me at the beginning.

It’s tempting to take that personally, but it’s a sign of the health and strength of our family:  Home is not going anywhere.  The kids feel safe venturing out into the world because they know we are here to come back to.  Their camp summers have taught them that.

In 2013 Elizabeth had two daughters and a niece at Aloha Hive.  She was a Hiver herself in the 1980s.  Her first post for the Aloha Foundation Blog answered the question “Who Sends a Seven Year-Old Off to Camp?”