Summer camp was my happy place. But also my sad place. It started the summer I was nine. My mom had loved camp as a kid. So much so that she’d built it up to be the most magical and wonderful experience in the world. And, somehow nine-year-old me, who was nothing short of a mama’s girl, was convinced she was ready for a four-week overnight camp experience...all on her own!
There was no such thing as pre-camp, or junior camp, or trial camp, or anything else to ease a kid into the overnight experience back then. It was first session or second session or the whole summer. And, so my mom signed me up to spend July at camp.
I can just picture myself back then: this small town kid, with big frizzy hair, and a florescent pink t-shirt that said 'COOL' across the front (circa 1990). I mustered up all my confidence, choked back tears, and climbed onto a bus that would take me up to Camp Walden where I would join a bunch of kids from Toronto who all knew each other from school and would go on to make my first camp experience...for lack of a better word...hell!
I cried because I was homesick. They teased me because I cried. Looking back (and having been a camp counselor) I realize no one likes a kid who cries all the time. But how was I supposed to know that? I missed my mom and I was out of my element. I’d never been away from home for more than a night. And, instead of that magical experience I’d been dreaming of, I found myself in the midst of a group of kids who had already formed their clique...and had no intention of welcoming me into it.
Despite all my tears and daily meetings with the camp director’s wife (who tried her best to make me feel better) I did have some fun doing things I’d never have been able to do at home. I won a big swim race. Made tons of pottery creations using a wheel and kiln. Got involved with the camp production of Cats. Learned wonderful new camp songs. Attended my first dance. And, spent four weeks in stunning natural surroundings.
Looking back on the experience, I’d have to say it was one of the best...and worst of my life. Because, while some of the things my cabin-mates would say (and sing) to make fun of me really hurt (this was before bullying was a hot-button issue at camp)...I also learned that no matter what, I could survive on my own. I was much stronger and more independent than I’d ever imagined.
And so, when Visitor's Day came (around the two-week mark) and my mom saw how sad I was and offered to take me home with her, I somehow found the strength refuse her offer and opted to stay and finish out my first camp experience.
Two years later, after taking a summer off to regain my confidence, I hopped on a different school bus (this time with my younger brother in tow) bound for Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa where I would spend the next four summers as a camper and later (after a two-year break to attend the truly magical Camp Arowhon) a counselor.
All of this brings me to the more recent discovery of an aptly titled new book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow, written by renowned psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Michael Thompson.
The reason I’m telling you all of this is because many of you are likely getting ready to send your kids off to camp this summer. Or perhaps you’re considering it for next summer. Or maybe you’re freaking out because, as Dr. Thompson says is extremely common these days, your kid is ready for camp, but it’s you who isn’t ready.
I have a two year old; so I’m in no position to say how I’m going to feel when she asks me to go to overnight camp for the first time. But, I can say this: there was nothing more valuable for me as a kid than being given the opportunity to experience life away from my parents and the comforts of my home. It gave me courage and confidence, life skills which continue to come in handy to this day. Plus, I've been writing about summer camp for the past five years or so, and most camp experts would agree with me on this one.
“Homesickness is almost universal,” Dr. Thompson tells me over the phone during an interview last week. “Ninety-seven percent of kids report some form of it...but 81 percent of those kids say it’s over within three or four days.”
According to Dr. Thompson who has spent the past 35 years working as a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and international speaker on the subjects of children, schools and parenting, we modern parents we are so busy trying to protect ours kids from trauma that we jump at the opportunity to intervene on their behalf, and spend way too much energy trying to ‘fix’ everything for them. All of this prevents them from stepping up to the plate and finding their own courage.
"Modern parents think their presence always adds value to their kids lives," he tells me. "But, this is not the case. You can not give your child independence. You can only open the door and let your child walk out and have an experience on his or her own."
Easier said than done right?!
What’s truly amazing about camp, however, is the fact that this independence is taking place in a safe, nurturing, and controlled environment where you can trust your kids will be safe and accounted for. Which should mean that if you’re about to drop your kids off for a camp experience this summer (no matter if it’s for two nights or 28 nights) you should do so with the confidence that you’re giving your kid the best possible life experience, no matter how much they'll miss you (or you'll miss them!).
“Don’t put your child on the bus with your face looking stricken," says Dr. Thompson. "If you show your maternal anxiety to your child in this situation you’re undermining their experience.”
Know this: "Camp ushers kids into a thrilling world of emotionally significant experiences that are theirs alone—ones they can only get when away from home."
So grab a glass of wine. Sit back and put up your feet. Enjoy the peace and quiet. And let your kid know that while you love them dearly, you know they are going to be just fine at camp, and you are going to be just fine at home!