Don’t Put Your Camp Blues On Your Kids

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Dear Miriam,

When I was a kid, I had a terrible time at sleepaway camp. I cried every day and counted the days and hours until I could go home. This summer, my kids are going to sleepaway camp for the first time, and I’ve been trying really hard to project confidence and excitement about their forthcoming adventure. But now that it’s almost here, I’m feeling very anxious, remembering my bad time and worrying it will happen to them. How can I stay calm and not pass along my own worries to my kids?


Overthinking Overnight Camp


Dear Overthinking,

Go back to that moment when you signed your kids up for camp. What were you excited for them to experience? What were they looking forward to doing for the first time? Why did you decide on this camp, at this time, for these kids? I’m sure you had great reasons! Hopefully, you can spend some moments remembering that initial burst of motivation that led you to sign them up and trust your past self that you made a series of decisions that were well-founded and had your kids’ best interests in mind.

Your current self, as is usually the case with anxieties like this, is playing tricks on you. You are not your kids. Your experiences are not the same as theirs. While there’s no guarantee your kids will love it, if they don’t, their complaints and disappointments and sadnesses are likely to look and feel different from yours because they are different people in a different time at a different camp. No matter how much you worry that their experiences will match yours, you won’t make it so just by thinking about it, and you wouldn’t even make it so by telling them you had a bad time at camp as a kid. This is all about anticipation; once they’re there, the experience will be their own.

Still, you’re right that what you project going into the experience could shape their attitudes as they approach that first day. I suggest that you actually avoid talking about too many details in the coming days and instead follow your kids’ lead about what they want to discuss or not discuss about camp. If they have specific questions, answer them (and, “I don’t know! You’ll have to wait to find out and then send me a letter about it,” is a perfectly acceptable answer). If they’re nervous, find out why and address the specifics in front of you rather than projecting that their reasons are the same as yours were all those years ago.

For better and worse, the world has changed a lot since you went to camp. Your kids have lived through a pandemic, and they probably have cell phones and maybe social media, all of which could shape how they feel about a break from home and technology. Many more camps than ever before have staff specifically trained in mental health needs, and more camps are adopting – and enforcing – guidelines around consent, bullying, and appropriate behaviors for both campers and staff, which is to say, camps are more concerned about kids’ well-being, and they have your kids’ best interests in mind.

While your kids are away, you can certainly spend that time reliving your own bad camp experiences and dwelling in your concerns that your kids are crying themselves to sleep every night. But I don’t recommend it. Camp is for kids, certainly, but it is for their parents, too: to remember what it’s like not to have to take care of other people round the clock, to have a break from providing summer entertainment, and to remind you that you are raising young people who will eventually be independent from you. Whether they come back having loved or hated camp, or, more likely, somewhere in between, by giving them this experience, you’re showing confidence in them and giving them the opportunity to have confidence in themselves while they try something new.

Be well, and I hope they – and you – have a great time,