The Long Lasting Benefits of Summer Camp
If you asked me what I imagine heaven to look like I’m guessing it looks a lot like summer camp. I went to sleepaway camp for nine years where I made many of my happiest memories. I look back on the experience often longing to have that special feeling of being at camp again. We stayed for three weeks out of the summer and within that seemingly short amount of time it felt like we were there for an entire year, but in a good way. The friendships we made were a special breed of friendship — stronger than I’ve ever known and something so unique to the camp experience it’s hard to put in to words. I can honestly say that camp helped shape me in to the person I am today. Camp made me kinder, funnier, smarter, stronger, more independent and most of all a really happy well-rounded person.
In anticipation of summer, we wanted to highlight the benefits of sleepaway camp and why a little separation can help cultivate happy, independent children. We interviewed Dr. Michael Thompson, renowned child development expert and bestselling author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.
-Maggie Janes Tancred, The Mother Company
What are the social/emotional benefits of camp?
The single biggest benefit of sleepaway camp is independence for the child. No matter how hard you try, you cannot “give” your child independence. You ultimately have to open the door to your house and let your child go out on an adventure on his or her own, and that’s what a child will get when he or she goes away to camp.
There are many other possible benefits: developing new skills, experiencing new challenges, making new friends, getting to know and learning from college-age students and the experience of living in a close, moral community.
What is the ideal age for a child to start sleepaway camp?
A child should go away when he or she has expressed some interest in camp, when she or he has looked at a camp video and been excited by it, when his or her friends are going to camp and coming back with good stories. Typically, children go away to sleepaway camp for the first time between the ages of eight and twelve. After twelve, the lure of local friends (and the lure of being cool in their eyes) may prevent a child from wanting to go away.
What are the benefits of children being away from their parents?
The main benefit is a child’s psychological ownership of his or her life. No child can ever feel that she totally owns an activity when her mother is standing there watching. She can only ever feel that when she experiences it on her own, has to rely on herself for a judgment of how it has gone, whether it was fun or not.
In addition, making new friends, being part of a cabin and a community, learning new skills and dealing with problems of living without constant parental support.
What are some things you can do to emotionally prepare your child before they leave for camp?
The best preparation for camp is sleepovers: with peers, with family friends, with relatives, with grandparents and aunts and uncles. When a child has proved to himself that he can sleep away from home and have a good time, he is probably ready for camp.
If he gets nervous in the months before camp, talk to him about homesickness, how he is going to handle it, whether he can turn to friends or a counselor. Walk him through his strategies.
What are some ways a child can cope with homesickness?
Talking to counselors, talking to friends and trying to engage in distracting activities. Calling home only increases homesickness.
Are there any types of kids that might not benefit from camp?
- Children who really didn’t want to go to camp and were forced to go by parents against their will.
- Children who have suffered from separation anxiety disorders and depression who do not deal with transitions.
- Perfectly healthy children who don’t adjust well to novelty. There are some children who react to novel situations with a spike in stress hormones.
How often should parents write and/ or send care packages?
Write two or three times a week. Send packages only once every two or three weeks. Big expensive packages are a confusing, double message to a camper at a rustic, home-cooking camp.
What is a good amount of time for children to be away?
Cost is, of course, a big factor. Camps can be expensive, although there are affordable scout camps and YMCA camps. Start with a one-week or two-week session, work up to a longer session if the child wants to stay more.
What is your advice for the parent who is struggling with their own attachment and fear of letting their child go away to camp?
If parents are nervous about sending their children off to camp, I think they should not only think about how much fun children have at camp—they usually do have a lot of fun—they should also think about how much their children will grow and develop at camp. The fact is that children cannot become truly independent until they spend some time away from their parents. That’s just true; that’s just the way it works. All you have to do is reflect on your own life and remember when you began to feel independent.
So, if you want an independent child you have to be willing to let them leave; you have to bear the feelings of helplessness, of not knowing, of not following. But as I wrote in Homesick and Happy, for most kids camp is a magical experience because they feel so much stronger and more competent as a result of being away. Though homesickness can be painful for a few days, the vast majority of children conquer it relatively quickly and feel pretty darn good about having done so. Letting your child go off to camp is a real gift to him or her.
Dr. Michael Thompson is a clinical psychologist, school consultant and international speaker on the subjects of children, schools and parenting. He has authored nine books focusing on the emotional lives of boys, friendships and social cruelty in childhood, the impact of summer camp experiences on child development, the tensions that arise in the parent-teacher relationships, and psychological aspects of school leadership. He also works with independent schools and public school districts throughout the United States, and with international schools in Europe, Asia and South America.
The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with our beautiful children’s books, apps, music, handmade dolls, and more.