Let them go, then leave them be

Kid kayaking first lessonsParents who are concerned about homesickness need to do their homework before sending their child to camp, writes Catherine Ross.

Recently, a friend commented that she would not be allowed to visit her granddaughter at camp this summer. The camp had adopted a new “no visitor” policy.

When her daughter, the child’s mother, had attended the same camp many years ago, my friend had enjoyed several visits with her. However, this option was no longer available.

As a former camp director who understood the situation thoroughly from years of hosting camp visitors, I assured her that the new policy had been adopted for very good reasons – all of them of benefit to her granddaughter.

I appreciated that she was disappointed, but explained that this director had taken a courageous step to do what was best for the campers. Camp nurtures independence, but progress is only possible in the absence of family.

Camp visitors can be delightful, but also disruptive. Campers who have visitors miss teaching and program time, while campers who do not have visitors may be jealous of those who do. This creates tension in the cabin after the parents depart – especially if the parents leave contraband.

I recall one incident when a parent, with the best of intentions but against all the rules, left a case of pop with her child with instructions to share the treat with her cabin mates.

She shared it all right, but only with her special, chosen friends until her counsellor appeared, confiscated the illicit goods and put a swift end to this young lady’s power trip.

Camps that still allow visitors either schedule a few specific dates over the season or allow parents flexibility in planning a visit on a day of their choosing.

The reality of option one is that the more visitors there are, the less chance there is of seeing the camp operating normally. Instead, special events or demonstrations are offered to entertain the visitors.

Camp sessions are limited. There is so much to learn and do that it is unfortunate to devote time to accommodate visitors. Counsellors are expected to plan something special for those campers whose parents are unable to visit on the set day.

Group of several children resting in international camp

If the “special activity” is too special, the campers with visitors may prefer to abandon their parents and join in. Believe me, it happens. You can appreciate this whole visitor day routine is not simple.

Allowing parents to choose their own day poses scheduling challenges. The camp has to double-check lists to be sure that the camper is on-site (not on a canoe trip or excursion) and available (not being tested for their Bronze Medallion or needed for the final rehearsal of the camp production).

Pretty little girl sitting on a tree stumpCampers who are happily integrated into the camp program manage very well without a visitor from home. When our older son was eight, he went to overnight camp for three weeks. We wanted to visit him and see the site, but the only day that fit into the family’s schedule was just a few days before his departure.

After driving for three hours and travelling several kilometres down Lake Temagami, we finally arrived at the camp dock. The director greeted us, but David didn’t appear for at least 20 minutes – the time it took his counsellor to pry him away from his friends and the activity.

Oblivious to the effort we had expended, David greeted us with a question: “Why have you bothered to come all this way when I am coming home in a few days?” I suppose I should have been pleased that he had settled in so well.

Campers who are struggling to settle into camp are frequently not better and sometimes worse off with a visit. If you are permitted to visit but in doubt as to the advisability of a visit, seek the director’s advice.

I once advised parents not to visit an 11-year-old camper who had had trouble settling into camp, but was presently happy. They chose to visit anyway.

Picture the scene when it was time for the parents to leave the island. The father is dragging the mother, who is quietly weeping, onto the dock while the counsellor is dragging the camper, who is loudly wailing, away from the dock – a melodrama worthy of Hollywood!

As the boat departed, I reassured the parents that I would take care of their daughter, then stepped in to relieve the counsellor, who had to join her cabin group. I sat quietly with the camper on a bench at the edge of the woods, away from any audience, until she regained her composure. She was back to her happy self by dinner time. I’m not sure about the mother.

Parents who are concerned their child may become homesick need to do their homework before sending their child to camp. With your child’s participation, do your research, choose your camp and get answers to all your questions.

Ask how the camp integrates new campers and how the counsellors deal with homesick campers. Check the qualifications of the staff. Inquire about the visitor policy. Ask for references from
recent campers.

When you have checked the references and are satisfied that together, you have made a good choice, trust in the director and staff to do what is best for your child. I reassured my parents that
if their child needed a visit. I would notify them immediately.

p37Last summer, my seven-year-old granddaughter went to sleepover camp for the first time in the second week in August. The camp’s visitor policy offered a good compromise:
come with your child and the family to visit camp at any time when your child is not in attendance.
In July, the camp welcomed the entire family. Ariella met the director and her section head, who gave us a tour of the entire property, which included a peek inside the cabin where she would be living.

This meant that when she arrived on her own, by bus, five weeks later, the site and some faces were familiar. Her parents could envision where she was and what she was doing while she was away. With this preparation, despite the inclement weather, Ariella’s first week at camp was a huge success.

So when your child goes to camp, leave them be and enjoy a little time for yourself, knowing they are having the time of their lives!

Catherine Ross is former director, Camp Mi-A-Kon-Da, Canadian Camping Association Communications Officer, and author of Our Kids E-Book, Preparing for Camp.

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