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Advice for parents on camp questions

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune

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Your ’tween wants to pack her own bags for camp. Good or bad idea?

• Advice from the Chicago Tribune’s parents panel:

As long as you have no reason to worry that she is trying to take along contraband, this is a great idea. It shows she is maturing, and if she forgets something, it is a wonderful learning experience. I am sure I would not be able to stop myself from giving her a list of “don’t forget” (jacket, bug spray, medicine, socks) and “don’t take” (valuables, electronics and jewelry) items. I would explain that it is simply from experience, not that she isn’t old enough.

— Dodie Hofstetter

Great idea, provided she lays out everything for inspection/approval first. Asking her to draw up a “to bring” list (I still do this before I pack) is a good idea, too.

— Phil Vettel

Not to get all Dr. Phil on you, but consider that she might be asking to pack herself to gain some control over this scary separation from mom, dad and the familiar. Sure, she can pack herself. And then you can add all the stuff that the camp puts on the ridiculous list of “musts.”

— Ellen Warren

• Expert advice:

Let her pack but be sure to provide backup, says pediatrician Alanna Levine, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of Raising a Self-Reliant Child (Ten Speed Press).

“It’s pretty tough on the child if you completely remove yourself from the packing,” Levine says. “You don’t want a situation where they get to camp with one pair of shorts for six weeks, and you’re saying, ‘Well, you learned your lesson!’ ”

At the same time, your child probably knows what she wants to bring along. And letting her take responsibility will pay off in dividends.

“I’m a big advocate of working with your child but taking a back seat,” Levine says. “This goes for packing for a weekend sleepover all the way to a longer sleep-away camp.”

Let her pack a first round with the camp checklist close by. Do a quick check and ask friendly questions: Are your favorite shorts in the dryer? How can we remember to grab those? How many days worth of socks will you need?

“I tend to encourage parents to do this with the regular morning routine too,” Levine says. “Instead of saying, ‘Did you brush your teeth?’ ‘Did you pack your bag?’ [ask] ‘What are all the things you need to do this morning?’ It gets your child going through the mental checklist instead of waiting for you to nag them.”

The packing process may take a little longer, but it’s time well spent, she says.

“It’s not easy for parents to fight the urge to get in there and intervene,” she says. “It’s quicker to just do it for a child. But in the long run, it’s actually a big time saver if you can sit on your hands and bite your tongue and let your child do the packing from an early age. When your child is ready to go off to college, she won’t need as much intervention and help to get out the door each day.”

Your 5-year-old hates summer camp. Is 5 too young to grin and bear it?

• Advice from the Chicago Tribune’s parents panel:

On one hand, you don’t want a 5-year-old calling the shots in the household. But the kid could have legitimate concerns. One idea might be to contact the camp and get the names of parents who had 5-year-olds go there. See how their kid liked it. Then try to convey to your child the good points of the camp.

— Bill Hageman

Kids have an annoying habit of hating anything new, and sometimes a firm stance is needed to get them to give the experience a chance. You want to be sure that your 5-year-old’s “hatred” isn’t valid (he’s being picked on, counselors are neglectful or too attentive), but my inclination would be to make the kid stick it out a bit longer.

— Phil Vettel

My 7-year-old hated after-care at camp last summer but liked the regular camp day. So her attitude at pickup didn’t reflect the whole day’s experience. If you can, pop by during the day for an unobserved observation.

— Wendy Donahue

• Expert advice:

“Some kids are just not campers,” says Levine. “They much prefer a less structured environment for summer.”

That doesn’t mean you have to (or can) accommodate this. Your family may need camp as child care. And your child’s definition of less structure may be never leaving his couch.

But it’s important to consider a child’s temperament when debating whether to continue at a camp, she says.

“There are looser camps and stricter camps,” she says. “Maybe the right match for your child’s best friend is not the right match for him.”

Talk to your child and try to get a feel for the problem.

“Ask specific questions: ‘What did you have for lunch? Who did you sit with?’ ” Levine says. “Talk about the good things and the bad things. It may be as simple as there’s a child there who’s being mean.”

And talk to the director or counselors to see how your child does throughout the day. If he appears to enjoy himself a few minutes after you depart, it’s worth encouraging him to stick it out.

Levine says, “You may not want to force a miserable child to go to camp, but you do want to help push their limits, which will reap so many benefits for them in terms of their own self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.”


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