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Camp counseling: How to prep rookie campers for their summer adventure

By William Hageman
Chicago Tribune

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Sleep-away summer camp can be a wonderful experience for kids. It gets them out of the pigeonholes they get stuck in at school, giving them a clean slate and an opportunity to grow.

But before these advantages, come some obstacles. Camp can be a tough adjustment when meeting new people and taking part in new activities in a new environment.

Parents, particularly those of first-time campers, often find themselves in a similar situation, not knowing what to expect.

These conflicts need to be addressed in a thoughtful, measured manner. Start by talking with other parents who have sent kids to camp. And don’t talk to your kid about it; that can make matters worse.

“Kids are incredibly intuitive,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, a camp trade organization at www.acacamps.org. “If they’re sensing you’re fretful or nervous, one of two things can happen: ‘I may want to go to camp, but I’m so worried about you that I need to stay home.’ … The other thing is they absorb your fear: ‘There must be a reason for mom or dad to feel like this.’ ”

Smith said that being a parent means helping a child grow to be independent and resilient.

“They need that to be successful adults,” she said. “If I hold my child back from that, I’m holding them back from proper development.”

And camp is a perfect venue to foster that self-reliance.

Roger Friedman and wife Roz Beroza owned and ran Echo Hill Ranch, a residential youth camp in Medina, Texas, for many years. As a psychologist, Friedman sees sleep-away camp as an extraordinary opportunity for growth.

“The child has to manage their environment without parents or loved ones helping them,” he said. “That is a huge developmental task, and to manage it they have to do things they never do at home.”

But that can be another issue. He tells the story of an 8-year-old camper who was away from home for the first time and spent three weeks at Echo Hill.

“It was the first time he ever made his bed or collected his clothes or put them in a drawer,” Friedman said. “But the big development was when he gets up, he makes his bed. The afternoon before the end of camp, I see him at dinner and I say, ‘Max, your mother is going to be so excited to find out you can make your own bed now.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘But I’m not going to tell her.’ I said, ‘Why? She’d be so happy.’ And he says, ‘Because she’d fire the maid.’ ”

Some children, he said, would rather not disrupt their routines at home. Thus, they do learn skills, but they take them underground rather than demonstrate them to the family. They employ them when having a sleepover at a friend’s house but not in their own home.

But Smith said that when parents notice a positive behavioral change because of camp, they should reinforce it.

“Claim it and name it,” she said.

A child could be helping more around the house, showing more respect for adults, treating siblings differently. They are to be encouraged.

“Tell them, ‘I noticed how you were working with your brother the other day, and I’m proud of you.’ ‘I saw how you made your bed,’ ” she said. “Don’t just say [you’re] proud, name it. If you see them trying something new that a year ago they wouldn’t try, tell them, ‘I like the way you stepped up. I like the way you took on responsibility.’ You name it. Let them claim it.”

Smith says camp counselors often see kids who have struggled in a school environment because they may not have confidence or may be reluctant to even ask for help. But at camp, it’s about participating, and it’s OK to make mistakes or ask for help.

“We celebrate all efforts,” she said. “We celebrate initiative. If you can have those experiences where you do something you didn’t think you can do, and people cheer you on, that confidence doesn’t stay at camp. It stays in your heart and mind, and it’s a stepping stone.”

Heading to camp?

Here are some tips from Friedman and Beroza to get parents and children ready for camp:

• Preview what camp life will be like. Go to the camp’s website and check daily schedules and lists of activities. The more information you can give your children about camp life, the less they will imagine the worst.

• Include your children in packing for camp, and ask them to select a few special items to take: family or pet photos, a favorite blanket, a favorite toy or book, etc.

• Acknowledge in a positive, confident way that “I am going to miss you, but I know you will have a good time at camp.” Share your optimism, not your worries, with your children.

• Pre-address and stamp envelopes or postcards and ask your children to write to you twice a week.

• Do not bargain with your child by saying things like, “I promise to come and get you if you feel bad.” Assure the child that if he or she is really unhappy, they should tell their counselor, and that way all parties can engage and talk about how to make things better.

• Ask the camp for names of other similar-aged children who are attending camp the same session. You may wish to talk with those parents or let your children meet or talk on the phone to their camper.

• Send frequent, upbeat letters. An email every other day or three letters a week is a good plan.


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