Sleepaway camp can be the perfect opportunity for our children to build confidence, independence, and resilience. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says if we can manage our own worries and show them we trust they can take on a new experience, kids are more likely to thrive.
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A child sleeps as a parent observes
Credit: Parents | Zoe Hansen

I finally read the phenomenon from a few years ago about raising children in France, Bringing Up Bebe. (I'm always behind, but better late than never, and American parents could still use some French influence.) Author Pamela Druckerman shares the standard French practice for children as young as 4 to go away with their class for a week in the woods. Without their parents. By age 10, French children are basically backpacking through Europe by themselves.

OK, not really. But I think this cultural comparison can help us American parents shift gears from anxious "what if" questions to "so what?" And if we can do that first, then our kids can do it next. In fact, sleepaway camp can serve as the perfect way to practice strengthening confidence and independence to overpower the worry that often influences our parenting.

Camp and Confidence

You are on the right track with your intention of preparing your child for sleepaway camp, rather than asking about whether or not you should even send them away. Bravo for your openness to this experience, especially after parenting under an umbrella of fear for the last two years. I appreciate that your question opens up an opportunity to encourage all parents to nurture their children's freedom and independence. I see it as especially crucial after this period of living in unnatural ways through this pandemic that has interfered with many normal developmental tasks of childhood.

Starting with the decision of whether to do a sleepaway camp, when it comes to building a child's confidence, I have seen this experience do wonders for children of all ages and personalities. Although camp seems to be mostly about fun on the surface, a week away from home in this totally different environment holds many gifts. It might feel uncomfortable to separate for this period of time after all the togetherness of pandemic life but this separation, however nerve-wracking it may be, can be just what everyone needs.

Building Resilience

When our children live by our sides, we often can't help but take over and do things they can probably do without us. Parents are famous for underestimating what their children are capable of, and being away from parents for an extended period of time allows both children and their grown-ups to realize all they can do. Last summer, my 9-year-old learned she can take care of pigs at farm camp, a skill that had been nowhere in our repertoire at home!

Not only do children build confidence in skills of daily life, but even more key to overall resilience development, children learn they can cope without the emotional support of their parents. I have seen this as maybe the biggest barrier to allowing children adventurous experiences: the fear that they won't be able to handle the stressful parts. The first experience of sleepaway camp is full of novelty and uncertainty, which can cause stress and anxiety. If we trust our children to manage it, they trust themselves more, too.

Preparing for Worry

To prepare for the adventure of sleepaway camp, the most helpful strategies depend on two main factors: your child's mindset, and yours. The more confident you are that your child will be fine at sleepaway camp, the more confident they will be. The strategies below anticipate some degree of anxiety about the summer camp experience, which is quite common.

Strategies:

  • Discuss the child's expectations and worries. (Do not project your own!) Review summer camp information with them so they know what to expect. (For example, many camps do not allow cell phones, which is amazing.) Let them lead the talk about worries so you prepare them for addressing their worries, and not yours.
  • Based on what they bring up, target worries with information and planning when possible. For example, if they are worried about the food, look closely at the website for information about meals. If they worry about what will happen if they get sick, review those policies. For many common worries, information gathering and planning can help a child know better what to expect to help them feel less anxious.
  • It's normal for children to feel nervous about a new experience, and no amount of information or planning can completely eliminate that anxiety. This is where important life lessons can be practiced: how to sit with the discomfort. Let your child know that new experiences can make us nervous and it's okay! We learn that we can tolerate being nervous about camp and still show up on Day 1. The emotion does not have to change what we decide to do.
  • Hype it up! Because the mind can get stuck on worries, remember to focus on all the cool and exciting parts of the experience. Talk to other families who have been to the camp so your child can hear firsthand how fun it is. If you are signing up your child with a friend, remind them what a memorable part of their friendship this could be.

The Bottom Line

When I picked up my oldest daughter from her first sleepaway camp at age 11, she declared "that was the best week of my life." Possibly an exaggeration, but even so, it spoke to the power of the experience. I'm not promising any specific outcomes, but the process itself of preparing for and going through the adventure of a sleepaway camp offers many treasures, for the child's personal development, and for our own belief that they can indeed do scary, hard things. Sleepaway camp can be the perfect testing ground for helping parents let go and let their children grow. And it's probably easier than moving to France.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.