This is a little story about how not to prepare your child for his or her first overnight camping experience.

My 9-year-old daughter is embarking on a “Wizarding Week” Girl Scout camp in the mountains this week. It’s the first time she’ll be away from us for more than one night. She is completely excited – and terrified. She’s worried she’ll miss us and that she won’t be able to sleep. In fact, the sleeplessness has already started.

In the days leading up to this adventure, I’ve learned a few key lessons about preparing your child for camp.

What not to say to your child before camp

Take it from me. Don’t say these things:

We’re going to miss you soooo much!

If things get really bad and you’re miserable I won’t be upset if you have to come home.

I’ve had a couple memorable parenting fails over the past week and the second bullet point is one of them. This was the very last thing my daughter needed to hear as she was struggling unsuccessfully to fall asleep last night. What I was really saying was, “You know, I’m not really sure you can do this so we better all prepare for the possibility that you’ll have to leave all your friends and fun early.”

The problem with being a parent is you can’t really take your words back. You can fudge and back peddle but with my kid, those strategies never work. She knows exactly what I was telling her. It also didn’t help that she grabbed the camp information packet off the printer before I could. So she quickly learned that kids can be sent home for “extreme homesickness.” I wonder how they define that…

My daughter wants this to work so badly – but she’s scared. I am scared, too.

Things you should say to your child before camp

Try these phrases on for size:

Wow. What an adventure you’re going to have. I wish I could go.

It’s totally normal to feel scared sometimes and miss your family.

Helping your child focus on the positive aspects of camp

Here are some tips to help prepare your child for camp, from the American Camp Association – and me.

  • Pack books and a reading light so your child has something to do if he/she can’t fall asleep. (I’m hoping against hope there isn’t a rule against reading lights in the cabin!)
  • Pack pre-addressed and stamped post cards or envelopes so your kiddo can write you notes when they feel so inclined to both share their joys and struggles.
  • Do not pack a cell phone. The camp my daughter is attending explicitly forbids kids from having cell phones, which is great. Phones can add greatly to a sense of homesickness (not to mention a whole host of other potential privacy issues).
  • Share your own positive overnight camp experiences. (Yep, self-censorship is essential here. I left off the detail about my Girl Scout camp experience that had someone’s undies being hoisted up a flagpole).
  • Include your child in camp planning to give them a sense of control.
  • Brainstorm ways to deal with homesickness while at camp, such as talking to a counselor, staying busy and trying new things.
  • Keep doubts to yourself, so you don’t make your child more anxious.
  • Avoid taking a family vacation while your child is away so he/she doesn’t feel left out because of camp.
  • Reframe the duration of the camp, making it seem relatively short.
  • If possible, avoid moves and traumatic separations in the weeks before or during camp.
  • Write your child letters, or drop a few off at camp to be delivered to your child on a regular basis. Keep the tone upbeat.

Finally, once your child is gone, let go of your own fears and anxieties and do your best to enjoy a household with fewer children in it. Remember that guy or gal you married? He or she still lives in the house and it might be a good time to spend time with that person. If you’re not married, enjoy a week of less responsibility.

Oh, and avoid another mistake I made: Do  not watch the news coverage of the catastrophic wildfires torching homes and pine trees across the state. Trust that the counties have evacuation plans down to a science. Don’t forget what a blast summer camp can be, especially when riding a real live hippogriff (yea, it looks like a horse, but so what…).

 

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