Summer camp, with its picturesque lakes and rows of wood cabins, provides the perfect backdrop for coming of age. It is the scene of fast friendships, late-night bonfires and early independent steps. It is parent-free nirvana.
Now is the time to finalize this year's camp plans, and for some North Jersey families, that includes wondering if their children are ready for their first sleepaway camp. Unfortunately, there is no formula of age-plus-experience that equals knowing for sure that your kid is ready. At some point, it is an educated leap of faith and parents must let go of their anxiety and their son or daughter.
"There is no rule of thumb," says Ridgewood psychologist Frank Sileo, author of "Bug Bites and Campfires, A Story for Kids about Homesickness." "Parents need to look at a child's maturity level [and] experience with being away from mom and dad."
Michael Friedman has seen campers come and go as the executive director of Camp Vacamas in West Milford.
"By the time the child is 7 or 8, the child is ready unless they're very immature," says Friedman. "If they're in a regular school situation and they're social, sleepover camp is a very positive thing for the child. And the child normally does not have the problem; more often than not, it's the parents."
Ahh, parents. Some are paralyzed with fear at the thought of losing sight of their child for days. Others didn't have the happy cinematic camp experience when they were kids. For them, camp is a four-letter word, the mere mention of which twists the stomach into a knot and sends an anxious shiver up the spine.
"Parents need to watch their own anxiety and monitor their own feelings," says Friedman. "If you're anxious about sending your child to camp, they're going to pick up on that."
While Friedman argues against any mention of the negative, Sileo suggests talking to the child about possibly feeling homesick, saying that it may happen to some kids, but that it's totally normal and goes away. Do not dwell on it, he cautions.
"We need to put it out there," says Sileo, who trains camp counselors to help with homesickness and other issues. "If they express fear about camp, [tell them] that is normal, that it passes quickly, engage the counselors, engage the staff to help the child when you're not there to help them through that period of time."
Parents should not, under any circumstances, tell the child they will come get them if the kid doesn't like it or is homesick.
"It undermines the child's confidence," says Sileo. "It undermines the counselors or camp staff who are trying to work with your child, trying to help build your child's confidence and whatever skills they may be lacking."
According to Friedman, every child gets homesick, and it's not a big deal. Conquering it, however, is a very big deal.
"It's part of growing up," he says. "It's part of knowing you can go away. The most important thing, and I tell this to parents all the time, be on time on pick-up day. And your kid is going to come home with fantastic stories and songs and new adventures. And then they know, 'I can go away for a 10-day period or a 20-day period or four weeks and have a great experience and my mom and dad, my parent is going to be there.' "
Ways to alleviate the inevitable homesickenss:
• Involve the child in the process of selecting a camp.
• Visit so the camp and personnel are familiar.
• Let the child go with a sibling or friend, if possible.
• Hide any parental anxiety.
• Mail a letter before the child goes, so it's there when he or she arrives.
• Pack a transitional object – favorite toy or stuffed animal – and photos from home.
• Be positive. Instead of repeatedly saying, "I'm going to miss you so much," tell the child, "You're going to have a great time and I can't wait to pick you up and hear about all of the amazing things you did."
• Start with a week or two, building to longer stays at sleep-away camps in subsequent years.
Signs your child is ready for sleepaway camp:
• Shows an interest in going
• Has age-appropriate maturity level and social skills
• Handles overnights without parents well