Ready for Camp?

“What is the best age to start camp?” asked a prospective camper’s mom yesterday. It’s a great question, and given that it was asked in three phone conversations this past week alone, seems to call for some conventional wisdom offered to a broader audience.

As a simple but dependable guideline, a child is usually ready for overnight camp when he can successfully spend one night away from home with a buddy. On average, sleepovers start at age 8 or 9, as the social skills and independence that emerge in 1st and 2nd grade provide him with the confidence to spread his wings. For some, this might not happen until age 11 or 12 or later, but the bottom line is that one productive night away from home sets the stage not just for surviving but, in fact, for thriving in a 3.5 and, yes, even 7-week session. This “rule of thumb” (and over 100 years of institutional experience) often serves as an eye-opening, if not comforting, benchmark for parents who might otherwise assume their children are too young for sleep-away camp, and for boys who aren’t sure if they’ll be able to manage.

You may experience a major disconnect between your head and your heart before your child goes to camp for the first time. We know that we want our children to be happy and not sad; to be successful and strong; to say and do the right things so they will make friends; to be comfortable in their own skin as well as respect the uniqueness of others. We reason that if we keep him by our side, provide the answers, and safely pave each step of the way, we can be pretty sure he’ll land where we want. But what happens beyond that landing pad? Ultimately, he’ll struggle both academically and socially if his “inner compass” for solving problems, making decisions, and establishing relationships—all necessary skills for a successful and satisfying life—has never been activated. You certainly don’t want that to occur at the college gate. Letting go can feel like cutting off your right arm, especially when there is the potential for your child to experience homesickness or uncertainty, or make a mistake, or not eat because he is a picky eater. You might intellectually recognize that your son will benefit from (not to mention enjoy!) an experience away from home, but, boy, the parental heart pounds at the very idea of letting him go.

“Independence Education” follows a learning curve similar to math, or reading, or sports. A teen or young adult doesn’t understand calculus, or write a cohesive term paper, or consistently throw strikes without having acquired essential building blocks along the way. Similarly, a teen or young adult doesn’t wake up confident, independent, and eager to try new things on a specific birthday. So how does he get there? When adults offer appropriate doses of independence at appropriate times, and have the courage to say, “Go for it. I know you can do it.” Certainly there are many ways to offer such opportunities to your child. Excellent summer camps, however, were established to partner with parents in this very mission.

If you do determine that this summer is the time for sleep-away camp, it is totally natural for both your son and you to be nervous… and even more so as summer approaches. For better or worse, know that it will be harder on you than on him. While you’re at home “letting go,” he’ll settle in and, under the guidance of supportive and caring staff, be doing all the things you hope for: making new friends, trying new activities, living in a gorgeous and healthy place. And if he feels homesick—which most everyone, regardless of age, experiences in an unfamiliar setting—your heart might ache but your head will know that overcoming homesickness will launch him to the next stage of independence, giving him the confidence to embrace further adventures, knowing that if he’s done it once, he can do it again.

Believe it or not, camp sessions fly by. And once you have him back home and listen to his stories, hear him sing the camp songs, and sense his pride in all he has done and accomplished, you’ll know in your head and your heart that you’ve given your child a wonderful gift.

-Dottie Reed, Head Administrator, Camp Pemigewassett

(Great thanks to Ned Whitman, Pemi camper of eight years, who happened to Skype me while this article was taking shape. In the midst of a gap year before heading to Harvard, Ned was in Laos, on his way to Cambodia and then New Zealand. We “chatted” about what he was doing, the new cultures he was experiencing, and the life skills that he gained through his summers at camp, starting at age 8. A few of his astute comments made their way into this article.)

2 thoughts on “Ready for Camp?

  1. Dottie, parents of prospective campers may profit from considering the Day Camp Factor, the Mom Factor, and the Cheap Dad Factor.

    My wife and I sent our son Matt to an excellent day camp. At age 9 we attended another camp’s winter recruiting session “only for future reference”. Neither Matt nor my wife took the subject seriously, but I had laid the groundwork. By the following winter my wife agreed that sleepaway camp made the day camp activities look lame: lake swimming instead of pool swimming, etc.

    Parents often disagree on whether their child is ready for camp. Many times the mother views her 9 year old as an overgrown baby, whereas the father views the same poor kid as an undergrown young man. For the only time in memory I stood up to my wife by creating a deadlock: I wouldn’t send in the day camp application, and I refused to drop the sleepaway camp idea. It was not pretty. To this day, my wife doesn’t remember consenting to the Pemi application, and she truly believes that I hoodwinked her by applying for the full season.

    Perhaps the Cheap Dad factor applies only to me. Sleepaway camp was not much more expensive than day camp. We would be paying more but we would be getting a bargain. My wife suggested that as a compromise, Matt spend half of the summer in day camp and the other half at Pemi. Both camps, however, charged disproportionately more for a half season. No way was I going to pay more than any other dad when I could simply send Matt to sleepaway camp for the whole summer.

    Matt filled out his pre-camp questionnaire with one answer: “I DON’T WANT TO GO!” We decided that a 10-year-old should not necessarily be in charge of this decision.

    The outcome: Shortly after we dropped Matt at Pemi for the full summer (on a rainy day with the wind blowing through the cracks in the cabin) his picture was posted on the Pemi website. He and two other nice boys (not available on our street at home) were standing shin-deep in water behind a dam they had built. Matt was not smiling but he looked ABSORBED, so we knew everything would be OK.

    Out of the blue, Matt tried water skiing (???) and skied as much as possible all that first summer. On visiting day we asked if he would rather switch back to the day camp, and he said no. By the end of the summer he laughed at that possiblity.

    Matt’s been back for four more full seasons. He’s too old for day camp now, and we shudder to think how we would keep him occupied if he were home for half the summer.

  2. Dottie, great article, and I’m glad I could help. Sorry the promised follow-up took this long. Let’s just say internet is not the most available commodity in Southeast Asia. Phnom Penh, Cambodia however is fully wired, a wonderful city.

    I’m glad we caught up briefly over Skype while you were writing this article. The benefits of camp and the great sense of independence it gave me couldn’t have been anymore relevant to me than right now.

    This year, I am taking a year to travel, gain new perspectives, and give myself some time to think before I begin my studies Harvard this upcoming fall. So far, I’ve had the experience of a lifetime, learning so much about the world. Having the opportunity to take time off before college, has let me grow in ways I simply could not have had during high school at home with my parents.

    This type of experiential education, however, is not exclusive to just me at just this age. In fact, I wouldn’t even have at the wherewithal to take on such an endeavor if it weren’t for years of fostering independence at camp and elsewhere. Exploring, reflecting, trekking, communication and teamwork skill building, trying new things, and most importantly, leaving your comfort zone are not life-shaping experiences exclusive to a 19-year-old kid traveling the world. On the quiet shores of Lower Baker Pond in Wentworth, NH, I spent 8 years doing just that, developing an empowering sense of independence that I’ve carried with me my whole life.

    To my parents’ credit, I was fortunate to have this opportunity and learn about things that simply cannot be taught in the classroom. Camp was a 24-hour class, in a good way. It was more than just the occupations you took and the things, tangible or not, that you learned from them. It was a way of life. Each minute of the day, a lesson could be learned. From how to share the Squish sink with others to overcoming a challenge on the trail while hiking a mountain, there’s so just so much–my experiences are endless. So much, more relevantly, that relates to the core idea of independence.

    Even at the age of 8, boys need to start taking initiative and discovering how rewarding it can be. It is something, as Dottie has expressed, that can be hard for parents, but it’s that something, my many years at Pemi, that have made my life so much richer. It’s also that something that has helped me bring myself to where I am now, and I couldn’t be anymore thankful for it.

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