Summer Camp and Homesickness
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year, thousands of children across the United States count the days
until the end of school with excitement, looking forward to going to
parents admit they are almost as eager as their children for this
annual rite of summer.
loves camp," says his mother, explaining why her 11-year old
son is pacing up and down the steaming asphalt of the parking lot,
obviously anxious for the camp bus to arrive. "He starts
talking about it in February, and by June he's already packed and
ready to go. This will be his fourth year at Camp Winnetakawa.
Sometimes I think his two weeks at camp each summer have a greater
influence on him than all nine months of school. Of course, I enjoy
having time to myself as well. We both look forward to his two weeks
experience isn't unique, but not all children are as gung-ho about
camp, and not all parents see its value. In fact, many parents
wonder if the experience isn't overrated -- a leftover tradition
from a period in the nation's history when the great outdoors was
idealized and exposure to "fresh air" was touted as the
solution to urban children's every ill.
parents must answer this thorny question for themselves, many
experts agree that even in today's increasingly high technology
world, a summer camp experience can be one good way to prepare a
child for the demands and responsibilities of adulthood that lie
ahead -- as well as provide harried parents a week or two of reduced
you send your child to summer camp this year?
Closely at Your Child
Lori Stark, Ph.D., director of psychology at Cincinnati Children's
Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, notes, "Overnight camps of one
week or several weeks can build children's self-confidence,
independence and social ability, while involving them in activities
they might never experience in their own neighborhoods -- but before
you start looking at camps, it's best to look closely at your
make sure your children want to go away to camp, most psychologists
counsel. Camp needs to be something they want to do, not just
something you want them to participate in.
consider whether your child willingly asks for help from adults,
plays well with new acquaintances, and easily stays overnight at
friends' or grandparents' houses," Stark adds. "Even if
the child is willing or even eager to attend camp, parents can still
do a great deal to help prepare them for the experience and get the
most out of it."
includes preparing children for the very common experience of
Me Home, Oh Mudda, Fadda
the song was popular almost two decades ago, many adults still
consider the refrain of Alan Sherman's Camp Granada as the
quintessential description of a summer camp experience --
particularly in terms of a child's desire to be rescued from camp by
parents because of homesickness.
be sure, homesickness remains a common occurrence -- particularly
among first-time campers at sleep-away camps -- but the general
consensus among child development professionals is that parents can
play a huge role in helping their children anticipate, cope with and
successfully overcome these feelings so they derive the most benefit
from their brief time away.
the mid-1990s, Christopher Thurber, Ph.D. and John R. Weisz, Ph.D.,
psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied
homesickness in children attending their first summer camp. The two
child development professionals talked to more than 1,000 children,
eight to 16 years old, about their preferred methods for coping with
feeling homesick while attending a two-week camp. They also asked
the children how much control they believed they had over their
feelings and what made them feel better. The study was published in
the May 1997 issue of Developmental Psychology.
the psychologists agreed that homesickness is often as much a part
of camp as campfires, swimming lessons and bug bites, they also
found that not all children are homesick, and that parents really
can lessen the likelihood that the homesickness their child
experiences spoils the camp experience.
to Thurber and Weisz, younger children experienced more homesickness
than older children, which the psychologists believed was related to
the older children having more experience with sleeping away from
home and more practice coping with homesick feelings. Thurber and
Weisz believe that the fact that the older campers were less
homesick points to the likelihood that camp experiences help
children learn and improve "away from home" living skills
-- a vital life lesson.
young campers who shared their gloomy and anxious feelings with the
UCLA psychologists said that they best dealt with the separation by:
doing something fun to take their minds off of their homesickness,
thinking positively, consciously changing their feelings to focus on
being happy rather than sad, and reframing how they thought about
how long they were going to be away from home. The researchers also
found that girls at camp sought support from their friends and
counselors more often than boys when dealing with homesickness.
Boys tended to have similar feelings, but were less willing
to share them with others.
Handling Homesickness Helps
and Weisz recommend helping children understand that feeling
homesick is a natural reaction, and that physical activity and
making new friends can help distract them from the sad and nervous
emotions that are part of being away from home. The two also suggest
that before children go to overnight camps, they should practice
shorter separations to learn how to cope with these emotions.
can help their children understand which aspects of the separation
they can control -- like letter writing and participation in
activities," said Thurber, "and which aspects they cannot
control -- like the duration of the separation and the camp routines.
The least homesick children are those who change what they can about
the separation and adjust to what they can't. And that takes
Than a Vacation
camp is more than a vacation for children," explains Bruce
Muchnick, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist who works extensively with
day and resident camps and consults with American Camp Association.
He provides the following recommendations for parents considering
the first overnight camp experience for their offspring this summer:
realistic expectations. Camp, like the rest of life, has high points
and low points, Muchnick points out. Not every moment at camp will
be filled with wonder and excitement. Help your child have a
reasonable and realistic view of what's ahead. Discuss both the ups
and down your child may experience. Your child shouldn't feel
pressured to succeed at camp; the main purposes are to relax and
of it as an opportunity for you and your child to practice "letting
go." Camp not only allows children to experience a world bigger
than their usual one; it also affords parents and children a chance
to develop separate interests independent of one another. At camp,
children often develop a greater sense of autonomy and sense of self
while making new friends, developing new social skills, learning
about teamwork and solving new problems. The time also allows
parents an opportunity to take care of their own needs, so that they
feel refreshed and ready to resume parenting responsibilities when
the children return home.
for camp together. Decisions about camp -- such as which camp to
attend and what to take -- should be a joint venture that reflects a
child's level of maturity. When a child feels a part of the
decision-making process, the chances of camp being a positive
experience are heightened.
about concerns. As the first day of camp nears, some children
experience uneasiness about the separation from home. Encourage your
child to talk about these feelings, rather than acting on what you
think the child's feelings may be. Communicate confidence in your
child's ability to handle being away from home to survive even a bad
bout of homesickness.
agrees that talking about a child's concerns in advance is often key
to a good camp experience. Whether the issue is a child's fear of
undressing in front of others, bedwetting, fear of the dark or fear
of homesickness, it's best to get it out in the open and help the
child make a plan to overcome it.
example, if the child is worried about being homesick, point out the
things that the child can do to feel better -- like writing a letter,
talking to a friend or counselor, or calling home, if the camp
adds these additional recommendations:
the camp. Visit the camp in advance with the child, if it's close
enough. If not, show the child pictures and a camp brochure, or
watch the camp video and talk about what it will probably be like.
"The more information you can find and share, the better your
children will know what to expect," Stark says.
the buddy system. Find out from the camp if any other children from
your area are going to camp, and have your child meet them before
heading off. While sending children off without you can be an
opportunity for personal growth, it's far easier for them if they go
with one or more familiar people.
often. If your child is gone for several weeks, write letters or
send cards several times a week. In fact, you may want to write
before your child leaves, so there's a letter waiting when he or she
arrives at camp.
it can be helpful to leave fun notes in the pockets of a child's
clothes, too. But don't be too quick to reach for the telephone and
call, Stark cautions. Your child might be adjusting perfectly well
and not missing you at all, but then be reminded of home and become
homesick after hearing your voice -- especially if you are anxious
about how he or she is adjusting.
more information about summer camp experiences and determining
whether your child is ready this year, consult the following
National Camp Association, 1-800-966-2267, www.summercamp.org