Finding the right sleep-away camp for your child can be a time-consuming and even stressful challenge. For some practical advice, we turned to Dr. Christopher Thurber, a school psychologist, father, and co-author of the best-selling book “The Summer Camp Handbook.”
How much should you involve your child in the process of choosing a camp?
I think it’s important to involve your child a lot in the process for two main reasons: because you want him or her to feel ownership over the experience and to promote good adjustment. Children who feel forced or feel that everything has been done for them are more likely to feel homesick. Having ownership over the experience means that once they are at camp, they are more invested in meeting friends, trying new activities, and being more adventurous. Now, you can’t involve your child in 100% of the choices—he or she might choose a camp that is not in your budget, or whose mission and values don’t match your own. Parents should do some homework first and then involve their kids.
How important is it to look at return rates as a measure of a camp’s success?
I would look at the tenure of the camp director. In the life of the camp, how many directors have there been? If the turnover is high, I think that’s a sign of an unhealthy camp. Staff return rates are another indicator. Obviously, not all the staff can return—some are college students. If more than 50% of the staff return from summer to summer—that’s a really strong rate. Camper return rates are also a good indicator. The question to ask is what percentage of age-eligible campers return summer to summer. If it’s more than 50%, that’s great. If it’s more than 75%, that is remarkable and a real sign of strength.
What other traits should parents look for?
There are still some questions I would ask, and they have to do with the features and character of the camp. For features, you want to look at the activities, what is the landscape like (rocky, mountainous, desert), and what’s the daily structure. Do kids get to choose their own activities? What time do they wake up to begin the day? Talk about the features of the camp with your child, and find out what appeals to him or her. In terms of the character of the camp, this is where parents have to weigh in. Parents should consider the tradition, mission, and values. Even specialty camps will have a mission—to promote good sportsmanship and self-confidence, or something like that. Parents should also look for evidence that the mission is being put into practice through the daily schedule and activities.
Do you have any thoughts on the idea of sending your child to a camp with his or her friends from school?
It depends on the child. That said, there are some distinct advantages to going to camp on your own, because you are going to make wonderful new friends. When you ask kids at the end of the summer what they liked best about camp, they most often state “the friends and the opportunity to be myself.” And a close third are the activities. The nice thing about going on your own is that you can shed your school reputation and your neighborhood reputation and really be yourself, and that is wonderfully refreshing for many kids. If the child requests to go with a friend from school, I see no disadvantages to that. However, there is a misconception that if you send your child to camp with a friend from home, he or she will be less homesick. I have a lot of data that show it’s just not true—having a friend there is not an antidote to homesickness. The same is true of a sibling.
What do you do if you drop your child off at camp and he or she has “cold feet”?
When you show up at camp and it’s very hard to separate, parents need a great deal of resolve. If you have involved your child in the choice and avoided the terrible mistake of a pick-up deal, you should leave him or her at camp. Find a staff member or the camp director and get that person involved in the separation and adjustment. Nine times out of ten, once the kickball game starts, the kids are over it. Parents can call the camp the next day to see how the adjustment is going. I know it’s not easy to do what I just said, but if you take the long view, there is something to be said for the nurturing of a child’s independence and self-reliance.