My oldest daughter, now 10 years old, has been intrigued by sleepaway camp since she first saw the 1998 rendition of “The Parent Trap.”
I get it. The upbeat camp songs, lakeside camaraderie and silly cabin shenanigans that take place at the fictional Camp Walden make nearly any observer, no matter their age, want to step into the story and join the fun.
Of course, not all children are ready to detach from their family for a sustained period of time in real life — and not all parents are ready to agree to such a thing. I only submitted to my own child’s request because a few of her friends’ parents signed them up for the same camp and for just one week, so that they could support one another and test the waters as a crew.
If you and your child are thinking of making sleepaway camp a part of summer, there’s much to weigh as you deliberate. Here’s what camp staffers say about camper readiness — words of wisdom to consider as you figure out what’s best for your family.
Step one: Know your children — and their limits
Without a doubt, sleepaway camp requires a child to have a certain level of maturity and independence, says Becky Ackley, director of summer enrollment with Idyllwild Arts Academy and Summer Program. Campers must be able to dress themselves, take care of personal hygiene, make good food choices and respect personal boundaries and personal property. You know your children best, of course. If you think they can manage the above for the most part, Ackley says that camp staffers are ready to support them when small bumps pop up along the way.
“You can rest assured that our summer staff will nurture your child, care for them and help them succeed, both in their art programs during camp and after they return home,” she says.
For Chelsea Parrish, account executive with L.A. Parent, sleepaway camp is on hold. Her 4th-grade daughter attended a two-night camp with her school this year, and upon return reported that two nights was long enough. And that’s ok, too: If a child is outright stating they’re not ready, it’s a good idea to believe her.
Step two: Pick a good-fit camp
If your child is feeling ready, working together to research all kinds of camps can ensure your child has a positive sleepaway camp experience. If they love painting and crafting, find an art-centric camp. If they are at their best outside, a nature-based camp is a solid pick. If they prefer flexibility, find a camp with diverse activity options that allow them some freedom of choice.
Nicole Lauhon, summer camp director of Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria, Calif., says her camp is an example of the latter. Campers decide what activities they want to do each day (from archery and beach swims to self-care spa activities), building their decision-making skills every day. Ideally, your child also uses camp as a time to explore. They might make mistakes as they learn, and this allows them to practice navigating any big feelings that come up as they go. Staffers are prepared to assist with personal challenges, to validate emotions and to work through conflicts between campers.
“So beyond new friends and new hobbies, campers leave with confidence and stronger social skills,” Lauhon says. “Camp is a place where we come together as a community and learn about ourselves and others.”
Step three: Meet homesickness with resilience
No matter how ready you and your child may think you are for sleepaway camp, that first experience is sure to come with a bout of homesickness. And it’s ok to feel a little nervous or fearful — most campers and their families feel a wave of emotions pre-departure.
“Summer camp is a growing experience, and growth often requires a leap of faith,” says
Mara McDonough, assistant director of Walton’s Grizzly Lodge summer camp in Portola, Calif. “Being ‘all-in’ on camp [as a parent] helps,” she says. “Show your child videos of camp and help them identify what most excites them. You can acknowledge any nerves or anxiety, but dwelling on those can hold a camper back.”
Instead, McDonough says to remind your child of how resilient they are and that they’ve overcome similar experiences in life, such as their first day of kindergarten, their first sleepover or their first piano recital.
“Remind them that they can do hard things, and that summer camp is going to be so much fun,” suggests McDonough.
Step four: Await your child’s return
As parents, we understand that our children won’t be home forever. To that end, I see the value of experiences like sleepaway camp, which will give my child opportunities to test the waters of independence and to grow without my physical presence. As my own family prepares for this summer and our first-ever sleepaway camp experience, I find myself both apprehensive and excited for my daughter. I cannot wait to hear about her week, and to see her bloom at rising to the challenge of being away.
“Time and time again we hear from parents that their child came home a more independent and self-assured version of themself,” says McDonough. “Kids are incredibly resilient, and a child who truly believes they can work through challenges almost always can. Campers come home and approach the world a little more openly — and with more confidence.”
Chelsee Lowe is a writer, mom and interim digital editor of L.A. Parent.