When I left for my first two-week stint at Jewish camp as a 9 year old, my mother was very worried. She was convinced I wasn’t ready, I would be homesick or maybe even worse: I would love it and never want to come home.
Ten years later, I will serve my second year on camp staff this summer and am eternally grateful for her eventual consent in sending me. However, I understand the concerns, especially for the first summer. Here are the answers to questions you’re sure to be asking.
How will I know when my child is ready for camp?
This is the big one and it really depends on the individual kid. Whenever your kid becomes interested in camp or you start thinking about sleepaway camp, it’s important to remember that nobody is prepared for everything that happens their first summer. Homesickness, to a certain extent, is expected and quite normal. Your kid will be doing lots of things for the first time and that’s OK! You should trust yourself to know what’s best for your child, but you also need to be prepared to experience discomfort and ups and downs.
What camp should I send them to?
There is an abundance of overnight camps out there and that may feel overwhelming. A good start is either working through camps you already know about from friends who send their children to camp, or starting by thinking through if they want a specialty camp (sports, music, arts, etc.) or a more general Jewish sleepaway camp, and then prioritizing what you want the camp to offer and what your child is looking for.
Once you decide on a camp, it may be good to consider sending your child with at least one friend, especially for the first summer. Talking with members of the camp staff can also give insight, and it may be beneficial to try and speak with a family who has been part of the camp to see if the camp would be a good fit.
What would be the benefit of sending my child to camp at this age? Would it be better to wait until my child is a little older and more mature?
Camp can have an incredible impact on children and can also play an important part of their development. Campers learn important life skills and the camp setting is great for kids yearning for more independence and for those that need encouragement to try new things and step out of their comfort zone. From the small things like learning how to make a bed and keeping track of belongings to larger ideals of learning how to build meaningful connections with peers and staff, camp can make kids more confident and increase emotional maturity.
That being said, while counselors and camp teams can help kids with transition and everybody starts at different places, it may be good to wait a summer if your child doesn’t do well with sleepovers and has never shown interest in going to camp, especially for younger campers aged 7-11. However, for older kids, even if they’ve never displayed interest in overnight camp, it may be beneficial for them to get out of the house and try something new.
Will my child be able to handle any normal homesickness?
Yes! Almost every kid that’s gone to camp has experienced some sort of homesickness. Whether it’s missing home-cooked food, a more comfortable bed or the presence of familiarity, homesickness is a normal part of camp, especially the first summer or two. For most kids, homesickness is prevalent during the first couple of days and may peter out after that. Counselors are equipped to handle homesickness with a variety of strategies and the prospect of homesickness is no reason to not to send your child to camp.
At my camp, we actually rephrased the term and now call it a Mossy Moments (Moments of Sadness) when a camper is experiencing homesickness. The journey of seeing kids grow from crying on the first day because they miss their parents to crying on the last day because they don’t want to leave is the reason that many of us come back to camp year after year.
In very special cases where homesickness is really prevalent, there are camper care teams that can get in touch with parents to discuss next steps, but 99 percent of the time, getting through the initial discomfort and homesickness is a really important step for campers.
What can I do to support my camper?
Whether you’re more nervous about sending your kid to camp, or they’re nervous about going to camp, the best thing you can do is give them space. While it may seem intuitive to want to keep tabs on your kid and check in on them every day while they’re there, kids need space to get used to camp and come into themselves. The constant reminder of parents can increase homesickness or prevent campers from becoming comfortable.
One thing that I’ve found is that a parent’s nervousness will reflect on their kid. It’s important to stay calm and talk through concerns with a peer, rather than your child who may internalize the anxiety. If you’re more nervous than your kid, that’s another sign that they may be ready for camp!
Will the camp provide a nurturing and safe environment for my child?
This question is all about research. While your kid may be ready for camp, there are always certain camps that will be a better fit over others. It’s key to know what services camps offer and if you’re unsure, you should ask and be in communication with the camp. However, at some point, you should ask yourself if your concerns are really due to services (or lack thereof) at the camp or just general uneasiness about sending kids to camp.
Since 2012, Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao has been sad to leave Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis., at the end of the summer.