While the summer camp experience can require adjustments for the camper, it can have a similar effect on the parents. Two Maine camp professionals – who are tasked with supporting campers and parents alike – said that parents can benefit from a few key tips as they manage the new experience of sending their youngsters to camp. The outcome, these camp directors said, is a greater likelihood of a positive experience for kids and moms and dads.

Rich Deering is alumni and community director of Birch Rock Camp, a residential boys’ camp in Waterford. His approach to helping ensure campers’ success comes from decades in the camping profession.  He called camp’s relationship with families a “partnership.” “We’ve got their most valued treasure,” he said. “The kids are the customers, but the families are our clients.”

Deering said that early in the session, camp staff members check in with new parents via phone or email “to give an update and allay any fears or anxieties.”  Such check-ins generally reassure concerned parents, he said. Deering said his goal is for each camper “to focus putting his head in the game” while being away from home. He said he tells campers to “put your head where your feet are” as a means of addressing feelings of anxiety and homesickness.

Parents can also support their kids by regularly writing them letters, he said. Deering recommended that the tone of the letters focus on the opportunity and adventure afforded to them by camp, rather than dwelling on the parents’ experience of missing them. “Their own detachment, they have to work through,” Deering said. There are occasional “helicopter parents,” he said, “who just want a verbatim update.” Directing a camp means “managing parents’ expectations.” There are times, Deering said, that parents “just want to hear someone’s voice that everything’s OK.”

At Camp Wawenock, a girls’ camp in Raymond, director Catriona Sangster said parents may experience more difficulty separating from their daughters simply because, these days, accessibility to kids is greater. “We are definitely seeing parents more nervous,” she said. “Attachment is different today.” When parents send their daughters to camp and are unable to talk or text, “it’s a challenge,” Sangster said. Consequently, “we try to make ourselves available to parents so that if they need reassurance from us,” she said.

“We understand it’s a big deal to entrust us,” as well as allowing their child to have independence. Sangster said that helping parents to have “realistic expectations” about a child’s experience is also important.  She said she likes to call parents in the first few days of camp to give an honest report on what she is seeing. Sangster also reminds parents that they may receive a sad letter, and that parents shouldn’t promise to come pick their daughters up if things get hard. Such promises send the message that “in life, when things are difficult you should just give up,” Sangster said. “I would rather have them partner with us to help the child through the challenge,” she said. “It helps them grow as humans, and builds resilience.”

Like Deering, Sangster promotes frequent letter-writing, and encourages parents to focus on the camp experience. Asking lots of questions – “what’s going on at camp? who are your cabin mates?” – gives the child a chance to respond, she said. Parents can make “generic” comments about home, Sangster said, but should avoid writing about events that might make their daughter feel that she is “missing out on a lot at home.”

Camp Wawenock has one seven-week session, and Sangster said parents also need to know that visits can be stressful for the camper. Avoiding long, drawn-out good-byes is important, she said. For all aspects of supporting families, “it’s about empathizing with the parent and where they’re coming from,” Sangster said. “It’s a place of love, always.” The camp must strive to “fill their need in a way that works with camp, and also protect the camper experience,” she said. “For me it’s all about building relationships,” Sangster said. “The greatest reward is when you spend quite a lot of time with a family the first year, and the second year you don’t hear much from them.”

“Once you build that relationship and trust, they are understanding that things are happening as they should.”

 

 Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp.


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