don't worry, be campy

BY Shragi Chafetz, LMSW

  “My son really wants to go to sleepaway camp but he still needs so much help.”

“I am so nervous to send my daughter away for the summer. She just seems so dependent on me.”

“My son still has nightmares in the middle of the night. He won’t be able to manage in camp.”

“How will I know if my child is ready for sleepaway camp?”

These are just a few of the questions that I get from mothers and fathers who don’t want send their kids off into a summer of doom.

Summer time. A time where the birds sing, the grass is green, and the kids run free. Unless they are one of the many kids who just seem to be more dependent on their parents and less capable to manage on their own. For these children and their parents the thought of summer approaching just brings added stress and conflict.

Child: “But mom, ALL of my friends are going to camp this year!”
Mom: “How can you go to camp when you still need me to pick out your clothing every night?”
Child: “Oh c’mon. But they’re AAALLLL going.”            

As parents, our number one concern and worry is our children’s well being. Throughout the school year we help them, guide them, study with them, care for them, and send them off to school every morning with enough food and love to get them through the day. And we know that if a mid-day rescue is needed, the school is only a short drive away. We can make sure that his bad day gets better.  We’re in control. But once we send our children off to camp, they are out of our control for weeks. Who will take care of them?            

During this time of year, we hear these concerns often in our clinical practice. And they seem quite valid. The reality seems to be that our children do depend on us for so much. They almost seem helpless without us. So how will you know when your child is ready? “When assessing if your child is ready for camp, you want to ask yourself two things,” says Rabbi Shlomo Dovid Pfeiffer from Camp Romimu. “Can they get through the morning routine on their own, and can they generally problem solve on their own?” Throughout his many years in Camp Romimu Rabbi Pfeiffer has seen thousands of kids enjoy the free spirited summers of childhood. When children attend camp at the right stage in their cognitive and emotional development, they may gain valuable interpersonal skills, confidence, and independence. Camp may help kids recharge for the upcoming school year.            

There are two key way to help prepare your child for camp. First, begin encouraging autonomy in your child by slowly adding responsibilities to his daily routine. Start with something specific and attainable. It can be something as simple as tying his own shoes, picking out his own clothing, or making his bed. On your change-the-linen-day, have your child shadow you and help you. Allow your child to try putting the linen back on. (Type A moms- you can redo them when the child leaves the room.) As always, let the child experiment and keep the instructions to a minimum. As the child tries to figure out how to put the linen back on, he is also gaining valuable problem solving tools. He’s being faced with a challenge and he is attempting to overcome the challenge even if it takes him a few tries. Packing drinks and snacks for day trips will be an important task in camp so have your child pack his own knapsack. If you go away for Shabbos, allow your child to pack his own clothing, another important skill needed for an overnight trip. Keep in mind, try not to overwhelm your child. Rather slowly and gradually expose them to chores that they will need to do on their own once in camp. With this mindset they should have ample time and experiential opportunity to gain the skills needed.            

At the same time, maintain a character building mindset. Look for opportunities where your child can make her own decisions and utilize important problem solving skills. Remember, while she’s still under your watch, the stakes are low. Better to let her try and fail now than to find herself in an overwhelming situation at camp, where she is forced to make a decision on her own for the first time. You can’t foresee every problem that may come up in camp, but you can probably imagine quite a few possibilities. For example, if your child feels conflicted about having to choose between two sets of friends on a Sunday afternoon, let her figure it out on her own. If it is somewhat complicated you can figure it out with her, but not for her. This will be an important problem solving skill which she may then take with her to camp. If you take your child grocery shopping, encourage him or her to pick some snacks and an idea for tomorrow night’s dinner. If he doesn’t like camp lunch one day, he’s going to have to find a way to eat a different meal instead. Maybe something from the canteen. Maybe a tub of marshmallow fluff that was supposed to last the whole summer. Either way, he’ll know that he’s figured this out in the past and he can figure it out again. Search for opportunities wherever you go. Supportively encourage your child to utilize problem solving skills whenever possible. If you notice an improvement in independence, your child does not need to get it right every time. Through the many learning experiences your child has gained problem solving skills and more importantly the confidence knowing that even if a new problem comes up he’ll be able to cope as past experiences has proven.            

Lastly, a note for parents. In our well-intended eagerness to protect our children from pain and discomfort, we take away opportunities for our children to learn and grow. G-d allowed Eve to fail the test and eat from the tree even though He knew that her failure would change the world forever. But G-d in His infinite wisdom also knew that if He didn’t allow Eve to fail she would never learn and grow. Decision making, pain, and failure are an inevitable part of growing up and an inevitable part of life. As parents, we have the power to give our children skills to succeed by allowing them to fail. Your child will quickly learn and remember that a tub of marshmallow fluff should never be finished in one sitting. The impact of a parent’s anxiety on their child can be long lasting. If the child isn’t gradually exposed to failure from a young age he will not have the tools to cope with failure when he’s older. And remember, anxiety is usually an overestimation of the danger and an underestimation of the ability to cope. Meaning, chances are your child’s experiences will not be as bad as you’re thinking and he’ll be able to cope better than you think.

Please note though that if you suspect a larger or more intense problem, a therapist may be able to assess and guide you to help you and your child. Find a therapist that is competent enough to help you navigate this issue. Now go sign those camp papers. But have your child mail them.  

Bio: Shragi Chafetz, LMSW is a licensed psychotherapist at the Five Towns Wellness Center in Cedarhurst, NY. He specializes in the treatment of children and adolescents. For more information, please visit www.5twc.com.

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