“I could never send her away!” 
“(S)he’d never make it that long without me.”  
“He’s ready, but I’m not.” 

Three simple statements overheard at a recent camp fair as parents perused their overnight camp options in a room full of camp displays and camp representatives. Worries like these can sure thwart overnight camp experiences. Don’t let them! Read on!

Separation is not easy emotionally—not when we leave young children for the first time with a relative, a neighbor, a babysitter, or even a friend.  And it’s not easy when we separate from children so they can thrive first in early childhood settings and next in elementary, middle and high school. All types of summer camp experiences offer life lessons that build the kind of independence, resilience, and confidence that help college students succeed, overnight camp especially. 

Camp professionals carve out quite a lot of time to speak with prospective camper families at this time of the year: on the phone, at camp fairs and open houses, at camp reunions and home visits. You’ll find them available and ready to Skype, text or email if talking in person or on the phone is not an option. It’s a big decision to enroll a child in camp! You’ll find a lot of help to explore the fit between what a camp offers and what you and your prospective camper need and hope to find in a summer camp community. Here, we reframe these three familiar concerns about experiencing the separation that overnight camp involves.

“I could never send her away!” You’re not sending the child away! The child gets to go! Children’s camps are unique worlds designed for optimal child development. Child-centered learning and fun awaits. The entire experience pivots on what children need, what makes children thrive.  Summer camp experiences compliment and reinforce the learning that takes place at home and at school during the year. Remember that campers are in a new, exciting place where they’re not used to seeing their parents. But back at home, adults and younger children in the family miss the child who is away! The adjustments are different for everyone. Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow by Michael G. Thompson, PhD is an excellent place to begin.

“(S)he’d never make it that long without me.”  Well, our children do need us! That’s established.  We welcome the most helpless mammals into the world. And they are dependent far longer than the young of other mammals; no question. But on that path from complete dependence to comprehensive independence, summer camp experiences play a significant, if not life-changing, role. Summer camps have contributed mightily to helping families raise children over the last century and a half. What summer camps offer that supports optimal child development really cannot be found elsewhere.  The truth is that with the support of a summer camp community your son or daughter can make it for a time without you. The adults at camp won’t replace you. No one can. But, they’ll inspire and encourage growth and change that you cannot. And they’ll do it in partnership with you. Belonging to a summer camp community is a powerful, powerful experience.  Children cannot have that experience if parents and guardians don’t let them go.  In this article, Summer Camp And The Process of Letting Go,  Deborah L. Jacobs, a senior editor at Forbes, articulates beautifully one parent’s perspective on letting her son thrive at a New England camp that’s not right around the corner from her home in New York City. And this recent piece by writer, blogger and NY Times columnist Jessica Lahey, features some ACA Accredited camps in New England, articulates beautifully some of the nuances involved with separation.

“He’s ready, but I’m not.” This is both honest and completely normal. In fact it happens all the time. Most of the time, children are ready to go to overnight camp before the adults in their lives are ready to let them go. The most important thing is to talk about it. Discuss a child’s readiness—with the child! And take some action to allow your child to experience safe independence—before it’s time for college!  This, like all progressions, begins with baby steps. Over the years, success with a few hours away quickly becomes a half-day away—and then a day, or several. One or two successful nights away from home, either with a relative or family friends, or on a youth group adventure can really set up a child for overnight camp success. Some month long camps say that all their youngest campers need to have accomplished is a successful night or two away from home.  Day camps sometimes offer an overnight experience to their campers—which is great fun for a camp community used to parting company at the end of the afternoon and a truly wonderful way to experience being away from home overnight for the first time with a group of friends and trusted adults. Campers receive all kinds of support for this important developmental milestone of sleeping away from home overnight. Sometimes parents and guardians feel support and sometimes they don’t. Here’s a great resource that makes taking this step much easier for the whole family, a key resource by Chris Thurber, school psychologist, parent, camp professional and consultant: Summer Camp Handbook, the award winning guide to summer camp for parents and kids…online and free.

As you’re sure to hear from parents who have let their children go to overnight camp, from the camp professionals who specialize in helping first-time overnight campers and families adjust to camp, and from teachers who welcome campers back to the classroom, by the end of camp, children have benefited enormously.  Of course what the benefits of camp look like varies from child to child—and is worthy of its own blog post.  Whatever the growth, it’s really exciting to witness as a camper returns home walking a little taller in their shoes, willing to take new risks, excited to share new skills and competencies, ready for the next challenge.  It’s worth it to let children go….and benefit from the extraordinary world of summer camp.


Photo Credits: ACA Accredited Aloha Hive (top, left), Lanakila (middle, right) & Farm and Wilderness Camps (bottom, left)