One of the greatest advantages of attending overnight camp is that it is simply so different from the rest of a child’s school year. Campers arrive and have the opportunity to try new activities, in a new environment, while surrounded by new friends – they will try different foods, they will be away from their parents (often for the first time), and they will learn to navigate hitherto unchartered social situations. This newness is part of what makes camp an incredible experience – it pushes children outside their comfort zone, and encourages them to take risks in a safe & supervised environment. But for many children who are approaching their first ever summer at overnight camp, this newness can be scary – and understandably so.
Precursor to “The Promise”
As summer approaches, a child’s anxiety about attending sleepaway camp (which is normal) might begin to manifest itself more. As the unknown of a summer spent at camp becomes more and more real, they may start second-guessing their decision to attend. And to assuage this anxiety, they might ask their parents for one specific reassurance: “if I don’t like camp, promise you will come pick me up.”
For parents, watching a child struggle with this anxiety can be extremely difficult, and they may be tempted to give into this request even if they do not plan to follow through. After all, if a child is attending a beautiful camp with fun activities, surrounded by energetic new friends and caring counselors, how could they not have a good time? And if this one simple promise can help alleviate a child’s anxiety before they depart, and you’re confident they will enjoy their experience, then there shouldn’t be any harm in agreeing, right?
The Problem with “The Promise”
“The promise” can actually be detrimental to a child’s experience, and can prevent them from having the successful summer that you envision for them. For many children, a difficult transition to camp life is a very normal part of the journey – it is natural for campers to initially struggle with their newfound independence and their unfamiliar surroundings. They might experience homesickness and spend several days yearning for the comfort of their homes. And then, almost always, they will adapt. This is the beauty of camp. In fact, this is one of the most valuable lessons that camp will teach a child – that it is okay to be uncomfortable, and there is value to perseverance.
However, if a child has been promised that they will be picked up if they don’t like camp, they might struggle more than usual to make this transition. Acclimation is a process that takes time, and it’s very possible that as kids are getting comfortable they will simultaneously be having fun at camp and missing their parents. Kids who have been promised an early return home if they aren’t enjoying themselves, might have a nagging voice in their head reminding them not to have too much fun. They might set incredibly high expectations for fun, or refuse to admit to themselves that they’re having fun – otherwise they won’t get to go home early. This is a very real phenomenon, and one that almost every camp director has experienced.
So what should you do to help manage your child’s pre-camp anxiety? Remind them of all of the wonderful reasons that you picked that camp, of the activities they will get to pursue and the friends they will get to make. And reassure them that every camper is feeling some form of what they are, and all of this is normal and to be expected. Schedule a video chat with your child and the camp director – this will give them a friendly face they can recognize at camp, and a strong director will have a great deal of experience in dealing with pre-camp anxiety. Make plans for when they come home to celebrate their successfully completed summer that they can look forward to.
But whatever you do, don’t make “the promise” – it will only serve to work against the possibility of a successful first summer at camp.