By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
Overnight camp represents an important developmental milestone for children. It is a chance for them to learn that they can function independently. They get to sleep in an unfamiliar place, eat different foods, adapt to a new routine, meet people, make activity choices, and keep track of a bulging duffle bag of gear—all without help from a parent. Camp provides a variety of personal growth opportunities for children but also for the parents who stay behind. In this article, I will describe three opportunities for personal growth that arise for parents of campers.
Opportunity for self-reflection: Did you ever have the experience of going to overnight camp? If so, what was that like for you? What were the positive and negative aspects? Were there ways that going to camp helped you become more independent or grow in another way? Did you miss your family? If so, how did you cope with the feelings of homesickness? If you could re-write your past, would you go to that camp again? As you recall the past, consider whether there are ways in which you have projected your camp experience onto your child in a way that makes it difficult to empathize with him or her. For example, if you were an introverted child who felt overwhelmed by a camp experience that was too stimulating, is it difficult to identify with your gregarious child’s enthusiastic anticipation of being with people all day, every day?
“The camp experience foreshadows future developmental milestones for the child, such as leaving for college or moving into an apartment, along with the associated “empty nest” transition for the parents.”
Opportunity for letter writing: In the electronic era of e-mail, text messaging and twitter, in which few people write actual letters, camp is the perfect time to resurrect the wonderful tradition of putting pen to paper. Even if the camp your child attends offers the option of sending daily emails that are printed and distributed to campers, consider writing and mailing letters instead. A hand-written letter is a true gift from the heart—for the recipient, seeing the loved one’s handwriting brings an immediate feeling of connection. A parent can grow from the experience of expressing thoughts and feelings to his or her child in a letter, and the letter itself serves as a concrete sign that the parent was holding the child in his or her thoughts during the separation. Make sure your camper packs stamped addressed envelopes and writing paper in case he or she has time to send a letter from camp.
Opportunity to anticipate the future: Having a child go to summer camp for a week or more is a chance to reflect on the reality that he or she will not live at home forever. The camp experience foreshadows future developmental milestones for the child, such as leaving for college or moving into an apartment, along with the associated “empty nest” transition for the parents. Try to access the feelings you have as you think about your child being at camp without you, realizing that mixed emotions are quite common. For instance, you may feel pride that your child is mature enough to actually go to camp, anxiety about whether he or she will be okay without you, sadness at missing him or her, and/or relief at having a break from the daily responsibilities of parenting. Let your feelings ground you in the moment by adding depth and meaning to your present day relationship with your child. The practice of noticing and reflecting on your feelings about separation now will help pave the way for coping with the more permanent physical separations from your child in the not too distant future.
As parents, we send our children to camp because we wish them to have the chance to test their wings away from the nest. At the same time, often without realizing it, we are testing our own ability to survive without them in the home, hopefully learning something about ourselves in the process.