It is important for a child to be able to express that vulnerability to his/her parents. Our most successful parents validate those homesick feelings, yet do not try and own them for their children. By trusting a child’s ability to overcome those moments of homesickness, we empower them to trust in their decisions in the future.
Over the years we have seen that transparency between parent and child, open and honest conversations, and allowing children to “own” the camp decision prior to camp significantly lessen the possibility, frequency and intensity of homesickness.
In our experience, children who are actively involved in choosing the camp they attend are often less likely to experience homesickness. If they DO experience homesickness, they are more apt to be able to work through (with the assistance and validation of supportive adults on the camp staff) those emotions if they feel they have had ownership over the decision to attend camp in the first place.
We have also found that parents who take the time to talk about and listen to ANY potential fears the child may have about camp, really provide the emotional support and validation the child needs to feel prior to their arrival at camp. A parent who says, “Oh, you shouldn’t worry about that—you’ll LOVE horseback riding!” is taking away the child’s personal ability to process, “I am nervous about riding horses….but if I try horseback riding, and I don’t like it, I don’t have to sign up for that activity anymore.” Additionally, don’t impose your own fears on your child—YOU might be the one who is terrified of horses, but your own personal fears shouldn’t impact your child’s desire to try new things in a safe, controlled environment.
Another key for a successful (and homesick-free) first overnight camp experience is helping a child make connections between camp and previous “overnight” experiences. With our younger campers, we really encourage previous overnight visits/trips with family and friends because it is a good indicator of potential challenges the child may have at camp. If a child flies halfway across the country to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for a week every summer, she won’t have some of the same apprehensions and concerns as a child who has NEVER spent a night away from home. In that case, role playing will often help a child think about some of the concerns she might have—like Mom not reading to her every night, or Dad not being there to kiss him before bed—and you can decide if a “practice run” at a family member or friend’s house might be in order.
Finally (and most difficult) parents need to be honest with themselves about the camp experience. Why do you want your child to go to camp? What skills are you hoping he will gain? If those skills are confidence, perseverance, resilience, inner strength, or independence, then you, as a parent, need to support the personal growth they WILL have at overnight camp. That may mean you will have a conversation that looks like this:
Child: Even though we have talked about all of these things, if I don’t like camp, can you come pick me up?
Parent: If you don’t like camp, I want you to write me a letter and let me know what is happening that makes you not like the experience. I will think about what you have said, then I will write back. Some days at camp might be hard, some days might be the most fun you have ever had, some days might be boring, and some days might make you feel like you are on top of the world. We have talked a lot about camp, and you have said you feel ready for this experience. I am excited for you, and excited about all of the stories you will have to tell me when you get home. Because I believe in you and in the camp we have picked out together, I will not pick you up from camp if you feel sad or homesick. I will be ready to hear about all the good times, and the hard times, when you get home.
And when you DO get the sad letter, take a deep breath, and feel free to call the camp director and get more information about what is going on. In most cases, a child who writes a “sad” letter at the beginning of camp is absolutely fine by the time the letter arrives home. If your child is truly having a hard time at camp, the camp director will often call and create a strategy with you to help your child work through the challenge. Yet it is up to you as a parent to create a foundation, and an understanding, that—no matter what challenges might come your child’s way—you believe in her enough that you will resist interfering with her experience.
If you can keep these things in mind, you will give our child the gift of camp: a sense of self, a sense of community, a sense of the earth, and a sense of wonder through fun and adventure. You are giving them the opportunity for new, fun, and challenging experiences; the opportunity to learn necessary leadership, followership, and social skills; the opportunity to play in the natural world.
And, in the end, if they miss home a little bit—they are learning to appreciate their family and friends that much more, too.