Sending your child to an overnight summer camp for the first time can be scary. Will he get homesick? Will he make friends? Will he eat? Michael Thompson, PhD, author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, says parents should throw away those fears and help them pack their bags. Here’s why:
1. Camps offer confidence-building challenges and the chance to build skills. As much as parents might wish to do so, they cannot give children self-confidence by telling them how wonderful they are and how much they love them. I believe in parents complimenting children, but research has shown that true self-esteem comes not from what other people say, but from overcoming obstacles and developing skills. That’s what camps do best. When a child tackles a developmentally-appropriate challenge, especially one that is scary like a high ropes course or doing a “wet exit” from a kayak, the child feels triumphant and competent at the end. That competence—“I did it!”—is the true source of self-confidence.
2. Children can make their own friends. At camp, parents cannot pick their children’s friends and micro-manage their friendships; they cannot make friends for their children and they certainly cannot figure out the soap opera that tends to be the lives of fourth graders. Children want the feeling of making a new friend and managing the powerful feelings that go with it. Camp is a great place to do that because children get a fresh start. It is not complicated by the playground politics of school, and their parents don’t know the other child’s parents. Your friend is really your friend, and the joys and responsibility of the relationship are yours alone.
3. Camp is the last electronics-free zone on earth. Parents are struggling to limit their children’s access to screens of all kinds—TV, computers, cell phones, video games—without a whole lot of success. Research shows that by mid-adolescence, children in the U.S. are on screens 52 hours per week. Camp may be the only time children ever know who they are without their gadgets and the constant texting, Facebook, etc. Parents do not seem to be able to control their children’s access to electronics. Camps still do.
4. Children are losing their relationship to nature. Camp restores that important bond. Richard Louv, the author of The Last Child in the Woods, reports that this generation of children no longer thinks of the out-of-doors as a place for recreation. They only think of the computer or a manicured sports field. If parents want their children to love nature, there is nothing like time in the woods by a lake listening to loons to help them fall in love with the natural world.
5. Camp builds a child’s sense of self. Parents cannot give their children independence. By definition, independence is something a child has to achieve on his or her own. Sleepaway camp requires a child to become more self-reliant. Contemporary parents in North America are among the most loving, devoted and conscientious in history, but at some point they have to let go. Actually, at many points—walking to school, riding a bike, taking a bus—parents have to let children try it on their own. For children, the experience of sleeping away from home, not seeing their parents and conquering homesickness is a big developmental deal and, by definition, their parents cannot be there to help them. If parents want independent children, they have to be willing to put them on a bus, wave good-bye and trust that the children will rise to the challenge in a supportive atmosphere. Residential camp isn’t easy for all children, but it is a life-changing experience for the vast majority of them. When children return home from camp, their parents invariably say they are more confident, more grown-up and more responsible than they were when mom and dad put them on the bus.
Learn more about Michael Thompson, PhD.