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Is Your Child Ready for Sleepaway Camp?

Though it may seem like only yesterday you were shopping for a crib, your "baby" may be ready to cut the cord and head off to sleepaway camp. The big question is, are you ready?

Is Your Child Ready for Sleepaway Camp?

Before the winter thaw has even begun, thoughts turn to plans for summer. What to do during the break from school? And what camp (or camps) could offer your child a taste of something he or she loves – or hasn’t experienced before?


Camp options abound in our area. There are camps for football, dance, and science. Camps for coding, chess, and math. Camps for sewing, cupcake decorating, woodworking, and songwriting.


But there is one camp that can make a parent’s stomach turn faster than you can say, “Leeches in the lake.” It’s sleepaway camp. The sleeping – though there definitely isn’t a lot of it – isn’t usually the worrisome part. It’s the “away.” Synonymous with gone. Not here. Out of touch.


Has your child expressed an interest in a summer sleepaway camp? Or are you wondering if this could be the year to give it a try?


Sleepaway Camps


For some, sleepaway camp brings memories of star-gazing, hikes, and s’mores. For others, thoughts of the first taste of independence. And for many? A lot of hand-wringing over readiness. Being separated. And what the “best” age is for a child to be away from home with people who aren’t relatives.


Before you start thinking about how to circumvent the “no communication with your child” policy, how to smuggle in a nightlight, or whether you could, feasibly, fit into a medium-sized duffel bag, we thought we’d try to allay some of your fears. And maybe (just maybe?) get even the most worry-wart, hovering-happy of parents excited about the thought of waving goodbye and heading home for a week (or more) of kid-less living.


So here are the short answers:

  • There is no “best age.
  • You know your child better than anyone.
  • He/she may be more ready than you think.


Shelby Riley is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in Chester Springs with more than 15 years of experience counseling parents and children. Riley works to help manage issues that affect the whole family system. We talked to her about common anxieties about sleepaway camp – anxiety is normal, but doesn’t have to hold you or your child back from experiencing a milestone that could be truly memorable and positive.


Knowing when your child is “ready.”


What should you consider when deciding whether sleepaway camp is an option for your family? Know your child well. “It boils down attachment issues. Does your child feel safe and secure in the world? Ask him or her, “Does this sound fun to you?” The answer may not be the final decision, but it will give you information to consider.


Another step in the evaluation process is a basic one: has your child had sleepovers before? Have they stayed overnight with cousins or friends? Or did they call you to pick them up at 10 or 11 pm? If that’s the case, sleepaway camp may be too much. If they’ve enjoyed sleepovers, they probably have the ability to handle it.


How to choose a camp.


Living in or around Philadelphia opens to your eyes to a plethora of possibilities in terms of camps. But sometimes, too many choices can be just as frustrating as too few. “You need to choose a camp wisely,” says Riley, “and talk to families who’ve gone to that camp before, Knowing what to expect firsthand is important to reduce drama, reassure yourself and your child.”


Most sleepaway camps these days have a “no contact with your child” policy. Does this give you hives? Or get you thinking about a getaway with your partner? Are you welling up just thinking about missing out on the final goodnight of the day? Or just excited about going to see a movie that begins after 10 pm?


“I encourage parents to think about their own stuff,” says Riley. “Look at how much contact is allowed. Even if there isn’t email or phone calls allowed, the technology may be in place to view photos or to see live camp cams.” Also, consider why you may be focused on being in touch. “Are you, as a parent, really the one who’s nervous? Then is a lot of contact really good, or is that just to soothe your anxieties?”


Getting a good feeling for the camp culture will also help you make a decision about what’s right for your family. “Does the camp have activities that your child is interested in” And can excel in” Or is it a competitive, pressure-filled environment?” asks Riley. “Some camps are faith-based. Some families are great with that, while others want camps that match up closely with what they believe.”


Another way to choose a camp to consider one friends or relatives attend. “Is it your child’s first time going away? Then,” says Riley, “it’s nice to go away with a buddy and have that safety attachment that can reassure them.”


And finally, look at the length of the camp. What is your family most comfortable with? Would a few-days-long camp be a good trial experience for your child? Or, asks Riley, “Would a two week camp be better for them because it will give them a chance to get over any homesickness?” Again, consider what is right for your child.


Sleepaway Camp Benefits for the child (and you!)


Independence. Self-reliance. Confidence. But Riley says it goes beyond gaining maturity or autonomy. “I really think, even with the possibility of homesickness, that kids need healthy stress… to feel that burdens come up and that they can cope with them and beat them without a parent being involved. Kids are stronger than we think they are.”


And don’t overlook one of the most important benefits of sleepaway camp: it’s just plain fun! “Outdoor camps are really wonderful because our kids are lacking outside time. Most are underexposed to nature,” Riley says, “And to get a nice healthy dose of fresh air with no screen time and a ton to keep them occupied is so important to a child’s well-being.” Outdoor camps can be key to developing a love benefit that can last a lifetime.


Riley also loves that some camps do letter-writing. “It really is a lost art. Communicating with someone through writing – telling them how you are feeling or how you feel about them – is another huge benefit of sleepaway camp.” Even if letters aren’t allowed, send a journal with your child so he can pen thoughts, doodle during downtime, or record the names and email addresses of new friends from camp.


So think about it. Take a few hours to research camps that could click with your kid. And talk to him or her.


Before you know it, you may find yourself comparing bug sprays. Googling how best to remove the smell of lake from a bathing suit that has sat for a week. And – most important – marking your calendar with the week your heart will walk around the woods, away from your body, and quite possibly, have the time of its life.


Feature photo courtesy of Pinemere Camp.

Founder & CEO, Family Focus Media | Creator for Main Line Parent, Philadelphia Family, & Bucks County Parent | @sarahbondffm | sarah@familyfocus.org.