The Parent Coach: Make Camp An Enjoyable Experience

A parent writes: Each time overnight camp season rolls around, my kids express much excitement about the fun that awaits them. Although I am glad they see camp in a positive light I worry that some of the problems that have cropped up in past years might be repeated. Teasing by their bunkmates, conflicts with counselors, and trouble accepting their performance on the sports field, have made for difficult times. How can I prepare them to handle these difficulties without making them feel like I am trying to spoil their fun?

Camp offers children a rich variety of skill building experiences, but it also opens the door to social and emotional challenges. The same factors that lead kids to yearn for camp life also contribute to the hurdles to their enjoyment: independence from parents and sustained, intensive contact with peers. Add to these factors the presence of perceived arbitrary rules, self-critical attitudes, and personality conflicts with less-than-sensitive counselors, and the camp mixture can quickly stretch our children in ways they don't often experience all at once.

Parents who wish to coach camp coping skills to their departing campers may want to start not by reminding them of the past but by suggesting they try to predict the future. Another idea is to ask them to verbally list the best and worst things about camp life, and then offer your own list from the perspective of a camper's parent. Gently steer the conversation to the importance of having realistic expectations and tools to take as "insurance" that they will have as good a time as possible. Once you open the door to a coaching discussion, try to touch on the following points.

Emphasize how overnight camp life resembles a temporary family living arrangement but without the built-in adjustment time and stabilizing presence of parents. While this situation can quickly build bonds of friendship it can also stir up family type feelings and situations: comparing, teasing, practical joking, playing favorites, rule breaking, etc. Point out that it's easy to take this stuff too personally and feel touchy and annoyed. But a lot of this is normal for camp and kids are expected to just take it in stride. Those kids who can let it pass without allowing it to be that bothersome won't become frequent targets. Point out that they can achieve that state of tough skin by reminding themselves of your discussion together.

Explain how the absence of parents presents a unique opportunity to learn greater self-sufficiency. Refer back to those times when they have urged you to allow them more freedom but you've expressed reluctance. Emphasize how counselors are available for help but may not have the best suggestions to offer. It's important for them to use their camp experience to practice giving themselves good advice. Suggest that they imagine asking for help from someone they trust and admire, such as a parent, coach, or teacher, as a means to problem solve tough situations they will face. Walk them through such an imaginary dialogue by referring to typical camp challenges that allow them to hear how it might sound in their own mind.

Ask permission to explain to them what your inner dialogue sounds like when you think about them leaving for camp. If it's granted, be sure to start out by mentioning the pride you feel and the hope that camp will help build the confidence in them that is so vital to growing up. Weave in your view that even something fun can be challenging. When meeting a challenge it's always a good idea to prepare ahead of time. Talk with them about the ways you prepare for challenges, whether it be meeting new people, dealing with competition, facing criticism, feeling left out, or other social hurdles. Offer concrete steps they can take when these situations come up at camp, emphasizing the "good inner advice" that you are confident that they can give to themselves.