How To Avoid Homesickness
Going to overnight camp, especially for the first time, marks a rite of passage for children. "Going away to sleepaway summer camp is an experience in separation. It can represent anything from an exciting opportunity to a painful rejection," says Robert Hertel, Ph.D., a school psychologist based in New Jersey. Hertel points out that very young children process information with a very egocentric view. Although you may be looking at camp as an opportunity to broaden your child's horizons by letting them experience the fun of living outdoors and making new friends, your child's spin on the situation may be quite different. They may be wondering why you don't want them at home for a week, a month, or the summer.
Hertel suggests that children be involved in the planning and camp selection process from the beginning. He suggests that the ensuing dialogue-of a parent asking their child what appeals to them about one camp and what doesn't appeal to them about another, can provide both a window into the child's mind and an opportunity for them to communicate their needs and reveal their feelings. "By involving the child in the process," Hertel adds, "the child can have a feeling of empowerment." Conversely, Hertel discourages being dogmatic about sending your child to camp, or dictating where they'll go without fully involving them in the selection process. The child who has a say in making these decisions often feels a sense of mastery over the situation. By not including them in the process, you run the risk of heightening their anxiety and turning what could have been an experience in independence into one of helplessness.
"The process of coming to the decision is as important as the event itself," Hertel concludes. Harriet Kaplan agrees. Although she never went to camp as a child, her husband was a very enthusiastic camper and wanted their daughter, Nancy, to experience camp from a very young age. But Kaplan, an elementary school teacher, felt that sending her daughter away at too young an age would be detrimental to both the child and the family. "I had decided that Nancy wouldn't go away before she was ten. And although my husband wanted her to go earlier, I stuck to my guns." But that didn't mean that Nancy spent her summers in her own backyard; for three summers before going to overnight camp, Nancy boarded a bus that took her to a nearby day camp every weekday morning for six weeks.
Through this experience, Nancy and her parents realized that she enjoyed camping and was ready to graduate to overnight camp. When Nancy was nine, the family visited a number camps. Kaplan says she had no preconceived notions of what she was looking for in choosing a camp for her daughter, but as the family traveled from camp to camp, they formed a list of what they liked and disliked, and what was important to them. Kaplan rated structure as the number one factor in narrowing down the family's list. "I wanted a well-structured camp program for Nancy," she says. "Not many children flourish when left to their own devices for long periods of time, so it was important to us that we chose a camp that had diverse and well-coordinated activities. I found out very early in the process that I didn't like camps where the children had too much time on their own-a laissez-faire policy was not for us!" She also rated cleanliness as being important and at every camp, she made sure that they met the Camp Director to get an impression of the overall philosophy embraced by its chief administrator. "After that," she adds, "everything else fell into place. " By the next summer, Nancy helped choose the camp and she left home for eight weeks. "Of course I was nervous," Nancy admits. "But I loved day camp and was really looking forward to trying something new."
As for homesickness, Nancy remembers that her "days were so packed that it was really impossible to be homesick." Obviously, her family's homework in looking for a well-structured camp paid off. Nonetheless, there were moments. Reading letters from home, rest hour, and "lights out" were times when Nancy thought about her parents. Although she loved getting daily letters from her mother, hearing that her parents had gone to a movie without her or had a party on the Fourth of July made her wonder if she wasn't missing too much by being away. Despite her concerns, Nancy went on to spend five summers at a camp in Monticello, New York, and was dubbed the "Happy Camper" by the Camp Director, who often asked her to escort prospective campers and their families around the camp. During his first and second year at a Boy Scout Camp in northern New Jersey, Mike Sheehan, who was then nine years old, was allowed to call home on the fourth day of his week-long stay. Mike's mother, Peggy, remembers tears during the phone calls they had during the first two years of camp.
By the time Mike went to a basketball camp in Massachusetts the summer before he entered seventh grade, the tears were no longer there. According to Mike, "Telephone calls make homesickness much worse. Even letters from home remind you of what you're missing." Mike liked the policy of a New York camp where he spent three weeks last summer. No calls were allowed the first week so that campers could have the opportunity to integrate themselves into the camp. After the first week, his parents eagerly awaited his call. But Mike decided to improve on the policy; if a week was good, why not wait two weeks? Midway through Mike's second week away, his parents left a message for him to call home. Two days later, the day before his parents were scheduled to visit for Parents' Weekend, Mike called home. "That call wasn't bad at all," Mike noted. "I knew I'd be seeing them the next day." And Mike probably didn't have much time to dwell on homesickness during that call.
His mother reports that he was too busy making up excuses for why he hadn't called earlier! The Girl Scout Council of Bergen County in New Jersey sends a pamphlet to the parents of prospective campers that advises them on how to deal with homesickness, which they define as either "a mild or severe form of anxiety until the child becomes adjusted to the group camp environment." They offer several suggestions for preventing homesickness, including non-threatening experiences away from home beforehand for first time campers. Overnights with grandparents or friends can be helpful.
Pack the child's bags with familiar clothing and special mementos, they advise. They also suggest talking to your child about the kinds of fun they will have exploring new camp activities and making new friends. You might want to send an encouraging letter that will be waiting for them when they arrive at camp. Avoid telling the child any bad news, they counsel, and don't dwell on how much you, the pet, or siblings miss them. They also suggest that you do not make a fuss at the time of departure or dwell on the subject of homesickness prior to camp. Paul Shackford recalls the scene when he left his two daughters off at the bus for the trip to camp.
One moment, two hundred girls ranging in age from eight to fourteen were milling around and placing their sleeping and duffel bags next to their assigned buses. A whistle blew, and he barely had time to kiss his girls good-bye before they were on the bus. Two minutes later, the buses, which had darkened windows that prevented occupants from being seen from the outside, drove away before anyone had time to react. Shackford concedes that he had a much harder time with the initial separation than his girls did. While his daughters were singing camp songs en route, Shackford was trying to deal with the fact that he was separated from his little girls for a short time. He wondered if things would be different more recently when he and his wife drove their daughters to camp near Scranton, Pennsylvania.
After getting each girl settled in her respective cabin, he and his wife toured the camp with their daughters. When it was time to go, the parents wondered if they should turn around and wave or call good-bye from the car. As they backed out of the parking space, the answer presented itself when they saw the two girls racing back to the camp and its action.
The concept of siblings attending the same camp raises some important questions. If a camp is good for one, does that necessarily mean it will be good for the other? If you are sending your children away to make new friends, how advisable is it to send them to a camp where they already have one or more friends and are less likely to branch out and meet others? The Shackford daughters' shared interests has played a definite role in choosing camps. Julia, their older daughter, first went to camp when she was nine. The following summer, when Kathryn was nine, she joined her big sister at the same New York camp for a two-week session (although the girls did not bunk together). Meanwhile, Julia had heard of a camp in Pennsylvania from a friend and gave it a try for two weeks. The following summer, Kathryn was on her own in New York while Julia attended the Pennsylvania camp for five weeks. At Julia's recommendation, Kathryn joined her there the following year. Shackford notes that he and his wife weren't necessarily looking for the same camp for their daughters, it just worked out that way because of their mutual interests.
When all is said and done, thorough knowledge of the camp and summer camps in general goes a long way in providing parents and children with the comfort and security needed to cope with separation. If you are enthusiastic and confident with the camp selection, these feelings will be conveyed to your child. Ask questions first and chances are that at summer's end, you too will be able to welcome home a Happy Camper!
Author Nancy Sheffler is a freelance writer and novelist. Her daughter attended overnight camp for several summers.