Resist the Urge to Pick Up a Child Early from Camp: Why Discomfort Can Be a Positive Growth Experience
As a camp owner, I often see parents struggle with the idea of sending their children to camp. They can’t pinpoint exactly why they’re worried (and often conflate their own fears by saying/thinking that their child is the one who’s not ready); in truth, the very notion of their child navigating an unfamiliar environment (even a loving and supportive one) without their help makes them deeply uncomfortable.
Indeed, if you ask a sample of parents what their biggest parental challenges are, most of the responses amount to “not doing the right thing”, “not being a good parent”, and “letting my child go, as they grow”. All of these general responses are directly linked with the decision to send your child to camp, coping with your child gone while at camp, and your child’s return.
Some parents are concerned that sending their child to camp is seen as “shipping them off” to just get them out of the house; in reality, by “shipping them off” you are facilitating one of the most important journeys of their youth.
So, you finally get to the point where you can do right by your child and help them embark on their great transitional journey. You help them get along on their test run of fostering independence (prior to one day when they will leave the nest for good).
But then, one day, you receive a homesick letter. A letter that asks you to “please, please, PLEASE pick me up!!” An overwhelming urge may be to jet off on your magic carpet, whisk yourself away to camp to retrieve your baby and enfold your child back into the safety of your warm embrace.
Here’s where I ask you to pause and resist that urge. Think back to the first time you left home for an extended period of time—perhaps it was a portion of a youth trip or college experience where you felt lost, scared, or alone in a new environment. What was your initial response? Did you think, “I want to go home”; did you call home and ask to be picked up? You very well may have done so. Indeed, as children and adults, a natural urge can be to retreat back to the most pristine womb-like level of comfort, where everything is warm and pleasant and all your needs are seemingly met. A rare percentage of people reacts in a way that says, “new environment, BRING IT ON!” We might want to be those type of people; it’s certainly hard and often aspirational.
I get that it’s hard when your baby is far away and asking, seemingly begging even, to come home to you. Remember though, that it’s not just his self-confidence and independence hanging in the balance, he is also setting into motion actions that will affect his future reactions to difficult periods in his life.
I am going to bring this blog to a bit of a halt right now, break down the third wall, and turn this into an engaging activity… I am a camp director, what kind of lesson would this be if there wasn’t a bit of self-reflection and work involved… Please grab a piece of paper and a pen. I want you consider your initial, disconcerting away-from-home experience, where you thought, “why am I here, what am I doing, I want to go home.” Describe that experience in as much detail as you recall. (If you haven’t had this experience, maybe you don’t need to read this and can instead shoot us an email and join a list of references for parents who struggle with childsickness, i.e. missing their children when the children are away.)
Now that you’ve written about that experience, think about the outcome; did you go home or persevere? Now go back and highlight or circle the important aspects of your experience. Would you have changed the outcome or the process? Write down in what way.
Hopefully, your own words and experience can help allay your fears. If not, as an experienced camp director, I can assure you that your child is well and would be extremely well-served by their remaining at camp in almost any situation. I am 100% committed to your child’s development, just as many other camp directors, and I would never B.S. any parent, or do anything to jeopardize their child’s well-being. If you don’t trust/believe that is the case, then you certainly should come get them ASAP, and perhaps shouldn’t have sent them to camp initially.
I appreciate that you’ve received communications that you think mean that your child needs help. Yes, those are homesick letters. Yes, it’s hard for a parent to receive those letters. I certainly get that—since our job as parents is to watch out for our children’s self-interest. But you certainly don’t want to set a precedent in your child’s life that he or she needs rescuing, especially in a circumstance where they do not. And yes, some part of you thinks that you would be breaching a trust or betraying your child by not coming to his aid when he has so emotionally has cried out (during limited, self-contained moments, almost a week ago when your letter was likely first-written). However, please consider that camp staff members are trained in how to help homesick children. 95% of kids have some element of homesickness; our job is to help them navigate that. A parent coming into the equation ruins even the best of efforts by counselors to help the child.
I appreciate that, of all the minefields that make up parenting, contemplating when to “rescue” your child can be a challenging one. And, of course, there might be times when pulling your child out of an uncomfortable situation is needed and should be done. However, none of those factors are present here: (1) Your child’s homesick challenges were then; now, they are loving camp; (2) Even if they were continuing to struggle, you would want to consider the benefits of letting your child ride out the discomfort of a healthy, socially appropriate, yet challenging set of circumstances (as they did when they actually overcame homesick challenges that were present when they wrote the letter).
As with many intentionally challenging experiences at camp (physical—like dam jumping, rock climbing, crate stacking at our camp; emotional—figuring out how to be strong when things get tough; social—like conflict resolution, navigating how to get along with diverse people and personalities), overcoming homesickness is a difficult experience that campers get through and experience that rush that comes with achieving a goal. That rush is huge. That rush is what we get to see at camp when a camper does something for the first time that they didn’t think they could do. By facilitating these experiences as camp folks (and parents) we help create kids who work hard, get through some uncomfortable moments, and then achieve a goal. This is how we help them become adults who can do the same thing. So when your child, later on in life, is dealing with final exams, or pulling all-nighters in med school, or managing the stress of balancing small children and a new job, or maybe fulfilling the 20-year dream of directing a multicultural summer camp, or doing whatever they choose to do that requires diligence and perseverance, they will get to draw on those past experiences. Their instincts will tell them that they absolutely can make it through the hard stuff, and that they can successfully achieve their goals.
Consider when your son or daughter was a toddler. Did they ever fall down, and then immediately look at you to gauge your reaction? They were literally looking to you to decide whether they were supposed to be upset. This behavior reoccurs even as children mature and experience new things. Older children get uncomfortable, complain, and wait for your reaction. This is actually a good thing, because you have the benefit of experience. And because you, as a wise parent, know that now is not forever, you know that “it” is not actually as bad as it seems.
Allowing your son or daughter to complete their camp experience successfully allows them to be unquestionably proud of their accomplishment, as they should be; they got through their significant challenge, persevered, and showed that they could do it “on their own” (i.e. without parents…even though the whole mission of camp is set up to allow one to succeed in that effort, by being able to be supported by fellow campers, counselors, camp admins, and the very structure of camp itself.) Additionally, your child would know that you have confidence in their self-determination. You have the opportunity to follow this camp experience with a resounding, “I knew you could do it!” allowing their self-confidence to burgeon in unprecedented, positive ways.
Keeping a child from checking out early also carries with it the important benefit of fostering independence. A huge benefit of children going to camp (in addition to the fun, friendships, etc.) is their learning to be independent. Picking a child up early from camp completely precludes them from learning that. If I could, I would emphasize that not only is it a bad decision for their well-being, but that of their camp friends (cabin mates, teammates, and tablemates) who would be robbed of the engaging personal interactions with them. It would rob your child of any proper closure to their camp experience, throw off kilter the closure process for friends and campmates generally, and be a negative aspect for the personal development of your child and his or her camp friends.
At summer camp, your child is in an environment, unlike school, unlike the playground, unlike many other social venues, where they are in a nurturing environment. The benefits of them staying far outweigh the temporary parental comfort you might get by them leaving early. Magical things have happened for your child at camp, and can continue to happen if he or she is allowed to stay, continue to push through, and continue to come even further out of their shell. So, don’t pick your child up early. Your strength now will become their strength later. That’s the type of legacy that we all want to leave to our kiddos.
I’m happy to try to connect you with other parents who have similarly had to deal with receiving letters/postcards that concerned them greatly (especially early in a camp experience), only to be able to hold strong, realize that they could trust their camp director’s experience with similar developments (although every child is certainly unique), and have their child returned to them at the end of camp having benefited so greatly from having completed successfully their camp experience…. and not only returning for future camp summers, but gaining the more generalized ability to know that they can thrive after overcoming challenges.
Now is the time to challenge yourselves as parents and do right by your child. Look at the notes you wrote down from your own experiences; after reading this blog, what are some additional thoughts you would add to that recollection? Please do feel free to share your thoughts.