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Separating from our child is one of the hardest things we parents have to do. We spend our time nurturing, teaching and protecting. Having to delegate that responsibility to someone else is always traumatic. But separate we must, both to give ourselves some space, but also to allow our child to develop independence and self-responsible behaviors. Camp affords opportunities for some activities not always available at home and gives us and our child a break from the daily routine of the balance of the year. Of course, we must select the appropriate age and developmental stage for our child. Some children are ready for overnight camp at a younger age than his/her peers.
Our first chore, after deciding that sleep-away camp is right for our child, is the selection of the camp. Camps come in a variety of flavors: arts and crafts, general sports, specific sports, performing arts, outdoor nature activities, boating and a little of everything. The best way to decide what type of camp to pick is to ask the child we s/he wants to do and to find out whether any of his/her friends are attending a specific camp. Keep in mind that the camp experience is for your child's enjoyment and learning, not for you to hone a particular skill in your child that you lack. The ultimate goal of a first camp experience is to foster independence and self-reliance. The more the child is involved in the selection process, the easier his/her adjustment will be.
Safety at camp is always a basic concern. Camps that are certified by a camp association (see http://camppage.com/other.html) usually have written policies and procedures in place that ensure safety. You should ascertain that the policies have been approved by a pediatrician or family practitioner with pediatric expertise. Your child should have had a complete physical examination during the year prior to attending camp. This is to assure that he has no physical or emotional issues that may impact his/her adjustment to and participation in camp activities. Fill out the camp application and health form honestly and accurately so that camp personnel have all the information needed to respond appropriately to your child's physical or emotional needs and to prevent any adverse events. He examination should include a review of the child's immunizations, in particular those for tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, pneumococcus, hemophilus influenza type b and meningococcus. Include on the emergency contact form your 24/7 contact information (cell phone or pager, as well as home and work phone numbers).
Once the preliminaries are done, you should turn your attention to preparing your child for the out-of-home experience. You can arrange sleep-overs at a friend's house (a misnomer because children rarely sleep during these get-togethers!) and family trips away from home, even for a weekend. Children typically experience home-sickness about two weeks after the start of camp. It lasts a few days and resolves as long as a child is comforted and reassured by the camp staff. The camp personnel must prevent teasing by a child's peers, which is likely to make a child more insecure and home sick.
Your drop-off procedure should also be designed to minimize any opportunity for long, drawn-out good-byes. Say "Good-bye" at home where your child feels secure. After that, take on the role of a livery driver. The drop-off should be short and sweet. At drop-off, try to connect your child with a friend going to the same camp or offer to take the friend with you to the drop-off. Expect a few tears (on your part, as well as on the part of your child), but do not let those tears change your separation plans. If things do not go as planned and you realize that your assessment of your child's readiness is inaccurate, you can always cancel the camp attendance. You may have to negotiate a fee refund.
Once the child departs for camp, be sure to write letters and/or email. The content of the communication should dwell on the goings-on at camp, rather than what is happening at home. Citing events that the child is missing may only enhance the likelihood of home-sickness. Packages of entertainment items and food are good to send, as long as they conform with the camp's policies. Camps generally frown upon packages containing items that may attract rodents and your child would be disappointed if he offending material was confiscated. While your child is away, you should start to think about what rules and customs at home may change as a result of the camp experience. If your child becomes more independent, you will not want to undermine this new achievement by continuing restrictions that were necessary for his/her previously less mature state.
As with written communication, when the time comes for visiting day, try to concentrate on camp activities rather than on what is happening at home. Let your child be the tour guide at camp, even if you are familiar with the topography. Remember that, for your child, the nooks and crannies at camp are new discoveries. Allowing him/her to demonstrate mastery of the terrain will be a positive step toward re-enrollment next year. Give your child a ten minute warning before you have to leave, then follow the brief good-bye procedure you used at the initial camp drop-off.
At the end of camp pick-up, be sure to be on time. Being left until last will surely make your child feel stranded and abandoned. Allow sufficient time for him/her to say "Good-bye" to his/her friends and exchange contact information. Once this is done, do not dally. Hop in the car and start the conversation with all the neat things that await your child on arrival home. Always try to talk about what the child will gain, not what s/he is losing. You can always debrief the summer activities once the readjustment to home has been successfully negotiated.
Good luck with the process and enjoy your summer!
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