One summer at Camp Stein, I remember one new camper who was very afraid to attend camp. She was extremely nervous, and was forced to get on the bus against her will. Upon arriving at camp, she cried and kept asking to go home. Our counselors did a very good job of engaging her and getting her to take her mind off of home. After a few days, things slowly improved and she started to allow herself to have fun.
Incredibly, by the first Shabbat, she was one of the loudest participants in the camp’s song session, and that very same girl who was crying because she didn’t want to come to camp, was crying on her last day because she didn’t want to leave her friends and go home. Camp had become her new home.
As a parent, it can be daunting to send your children, your most prized possessions, away to an overnight summer camp for the first time. When making this decision, questions are sure to pop up: “Will my kid fit in? Will he/she make friends? Will they be looked after properly?” And my favorite, “What happens if my child gets homesick?”
As an overnight summer camp director, I get asked these questions, and many more, throughout my time spent recruiting during the off-season.
Trying to convince first-time parents of the benefits of a Jewish overnight summer camp experience for their child or children can be a difficult task. It is not easy to convince a prospective family that their children will be safe, welcomed with open arms and cared for during the summer. How do we prove their child won’t get homesick?
Here is a list of useful tips that can help make the decision and process easier for a first-time camper family, and guide them on a path of success to make camp their new home:
1. Eliminate the word “homesick” from your vocabulary. A former supervisor of mine and current camp director of a successful Jewish camp taught me this tip. He’d say that children aren’t actually sick when they are missing their families, so the word “homesick” didn’t really make sense. It’s normal for children to miss home when they go away for the first time; it means they come from a very loving family, and missing Mom and Dad is unavoidable.
Our staff at Camp Stein is well-trained to embrace this feeling with their campers, and relate to it. Instead of telling a first-timer to “stop missing your home/family,” our counselors will tell this camper that they understand this unhappy feeling. And by eliminating the word “homesick,” we refer to this feeling as a “temporary moment of sadness.” Even calling it something different with a more positive spin can change a child’s emotional state immediately.
2. Talk about camp before opening day. Whether in the car on the way home from school, at the dinner table or anywhere else where time allows, parents should feel comfortable striking up a conversation with their child(ren) about what they might be looking forward to at camp, as well as what they might be scared of or nervous about.
Allowing children to express their feelings out loud and prior to the start of camp can also help ease them into what they are about to experience. Verbalizing it makes it more real, and these conversations should be able to assist in calming any fears or clearing up any confusion.
3. No deals. No matter what session length is chosen, it needs to be the expectation that the camper will be staying for the total duration of that session, no matter what. A common deal to avoid making is when a parent says, “If you can make it through the first three days, and you are still unhappy, we will come and pick you up.”
More often than not, those three days will be even more miserable than they would have been, and this camper usually will not allow himself or herself the chance to embrace the environment or their cabin mates. They won’t try to have fun because all they will be thinking about is that they get to go home if they “get through” the first three days. Deals do not equal success.
4. Pick the right camp. Overnight camps come in all shapes and sizes, and it is necessary to pick the one that is perfect for your family. Camp Stein prides itself on its intimate community, with only about 175 campers at one time. Those temporary moments of sadness are much fewer in a small, intimate camp setting because all campers and staff truly get to know each other and care for each other during the course of their stay.
Brian Mitchell is executive director of Camp Daisy and Harry Stein. Visit campstein.org.