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How To Have Happy Campers

For children all around the country, school's out for summer. And for many, that means the start of summer camp.

But before you let your child pack a bag and board the bus, there are some serious issues for parents to consider. Child psychologist Robin Goodman offers some advice for parents on The Early Show.

There are three main aspects of camp with pros and cons for kids' development and fun:

Independence Aspect:
Kids get to be away from their parents, and maybe their siblings for extended time and have to learn to rely on themselves and on others.

Social Aspect:
Even if individual skill and interests are encouraged, kids are in groups for everything. They eat, sleep, and play together. And kids in groups take on different roles such as the leader, the nurturer, the helper, etc., and that's OK. Camp can be a great experience for a child who has not found his niche at home. And when they go to a special interest camp, children can benefit from being with like-minded kids. At the same time, the experience can be tough on kids who are loners. Throwing them into the camp experience isn't always a good idea.

Physical Aspect:
Couch potatoes are not well tolerated and competition is a natural part of group activity, even if it is downplayed. Camp is often a life-learning lab, where groups find out quickly that some kids are better than others at things. At camp, this is played out on the playing field. Ideally, kids learn about both their strengths and weaknesses, and that it's good - and human - to have both.

Preparation For Sleep-away Campers:
When you've decided on a camp, call someone on the staff and don't be afraid to ask lots of questions so that you're not in for any surprises and you get a sense of what the environment will be like. Questions to ask:

  • "What is the staff-to-child ratio?"
  • "What types of activities do the campers take part in?"
  • "What is the philosophy about competitive games and activities?"
  • "What's the method for grouping kids?"
  • "What are the options if there's a problem?"
  • "Who is the best contact person for you?"

The child should have some sleep-away experiences before camp (e.g. overnights with friends or relatives). Get the child acquainted with the camp and some of the activities he or she may be taking part in. Or get the child to meet some of the other kids. Also, let the child have some say in picking the camp so he or she feels somewhat in control. Let the child help pack - he or she will be likely to include favorite clothes and items so he will have familiar things on arrival. Determine if it would be helpful for a first-timer to go to camp with a sibling or friend so the child has a ready support system. Talk about things that will be the same as well as those that will be different. Example: You'll go swimming just like we do at the beach, you'll get to play baseball - and you'll get to try horse-back riding.

Don't go overboard. This can just increase a vulnerable child's anxiety. Talk about your own experiences (if positive), but don't gush too much about your own fabulous camp experiences. The child may not buy it or think it relevant.

Also make sure everyone knows the family safety/support plan (e.g. phone numbers, back up people, medical info etc.)

And have a letter or care package sent to arrive on the first couple of days. Keep the packages coming but don't send lifeline items that might get lost and cause more problems.

Homesick Campers:
It's about anxiety over separation from parents. It hapens more often with first timers but can happen at any time - especially if the child is at a new camp, has stress at home, or is having a difficult time. Some kids are more fearful these days because of talk of terrorism. Remember that it takes two to separate; anxious parents make for anxious kids.

The child who cries to come home is likely to be the one who also cries when it's time to leave at the end of the summer. Parents must convey confidence in the child's ability to handle the situation and must convey confidence about the camp's ability to keep the child safe.

What to do when you get that call:

  • Find out the camp policies for dealing with homesick campers. They have more experience than you with this
  • If need be, have a set time to call, rather than a random time that will generate more anxiety as the child waits and wonders when the call will come.
  • Find out about contact options such as letters, calls, packages, Internet. Many camps have Internet sites where they post kids pictures so you can encourage your child to get in on it and let him/her know you'll be watching. Don't overdo contact. The child needs to adjust and it may be difficult if parents keep the leash too tight.
  • Don't immediately react too strongly to what you hear over the phone. Get more information. Find out the cause of upset.Probe to get the child to be more specific. If the child says, "It's awful," focus the child and break it down. Develop a more accurate perspective with questions such as: "Tell me about the kids in your cabin. How is the food? How is the swimming?" Talk to the counselor or other staff. Different causes require different solutions.
  • Come home. Sometimes it's a bad fit between child and camp. Or sometimes the child has a problem with anxiety, such as significant depression or worry, or physical complaints that need more attention. Making the child "suffer" through it is not helpful. Don't criticize or punish the child; assess what went wrong. But if home, structure the time back so it is productive and fun in other ways.

Bullies go to camp, too, and wherever there's groups of kids, it's a possible problem. Also, bullies can be grownups, too. Every now and then, stressed or rule-bound or determined counselors or staff members can be too tough on campers. Although they may just be looking out for the kid's best interest, it can be conveyed as bullying.

If you get a call from your child and he or she sounds unhappy, ask general questions at first to get a feel for what's going on and then include some questions about possible bullies. For example: "How are the other kids?" "Is there anyone you especially like?" "Is there anyone you don't like?" "How's everyone getting along?" "How's it going with your counselors?"

What to do: Don't wait for the situation to correct itself. Most likely, it will only get worse. Bullying is serious whenever and wherever it happens. The longer it goes on, the worse it can be. Also, don't always assume your child is innocent. Take a problem-solving, rather than blaming, approach.

There are always three players in the bully game: the bully, the victim, and the bystander.

Kids need skills for handling all the different people that are part of the problem and will be part of the solution. Adults are allowed and should help to protect kids. So enlist staff members at the camp to get involved to try and correct the situation.

After Camp:
Regardless if the child stayed and enjoyed it, stayed and found it mediocre, or decided to leave, it's OK to refer back to the experience. Talk about how the child handled it, what worked and didn't,so she or he can use those skills the next time.

Evaluate if any problems signal something that needs more follow-up at home - different kinds of group experiences to help a child with social skills development, involvement in a new found passion or activity of interest.

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