Family Matters

Summer Camp: Great for Kids, Even Better for Parents

Psychologist Michael Thompson makes the case in his new book that overnight camp is the antidote to parenting in the age of anxiety

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

I’ve spent a good bit of time away from my kids this summer. My 9-year-old went on a month-long trip to Alaska with his grandparents, while my 7-year-old had her first taste of sleepaway camp in a four-night introductory session. I wasn’t worried about either of them. My son, after all, was with my parents. And my daughter scarcely glanced back as she boarded the bus to camp. Homesick? Hardly.

While I constantly wondered what they were up to, my kids didn’t seem to notice that my husband and I had been removed from their family equation. They did just fine without me reminding them to slather on sunscreen or to eat their veggies. More than fine, actually; they each had a blast.

(MORE: How ‘Kidsick’ Parents Stay Connected (Obsessively) with Their Kids in Summer Camp)

Little did I know that I was doing them a huge favor by kissing them goodbye and sending them off to manage without me. But psychologist Michael Thompson wrote an entire book about the importance of a little child-parent separation. Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow urges helicopter parents to land their hovercraft and set their kids free for the summer. These days, of course, setting your kids free doesn’t have to mean completely severing the ties that bind. Most camps post hundreds of digital photos of campers each day, prompting many a lovelorn mom to sit by her computer all day clicking “refresh.” Many camps allow email, and a new service even lets parents forward recent tweets from their kids’ favorite Twitter personalities.

Thompson intended to write a book about all sorts of away-from-home experiences, but he zeroed in on the “magic of camp” after deciding that it’s where most kids first battle homesickness only to emerge triumphantly independent. Here, Thompson talks about how a couple hundred pages about summer camp ended up as a treatise on parenting.

(MORE: Can Being a Camp Counselor Make Kids More Responsible?)

Healthland: Why did you write this book?
Thompson: You’re so intertwined with your parents psychologically because of the prolonged dependence of the human child. We’re made that way. But if you want to know who you are, it’s helpful to get away from them.

I heard in a school consulting trip that there are more and more parents frightened by the school overnight trip. If they let their child go, they want 40 minutes with the 5th-grade teacher to hand over the inhaler, which the child never uses, and the bag of vitamins. Then I began talking to camp directors. They don’t allow cell phones at camp, but they said they’re getting kids who come with two cells — one to turn in and one as a back-up. Parents are saying, I want you to go to camp and have a camp experience, but I want you to be in constant touch with me.

That’s what camp pictures are all about, right?
The camps are putting up pictures in an attempt to allay your anxiety and appease your need to know. You can look at them but know this: seeing pictures of your child online adds absolutely no value to your child’s camp experience. It’s 100% for the parents. One camp director told me about a boy whose mother said, When you see a photographer taking pictures of kids, jump in the picture and hold up two fingers if you’re alright and three if you’re not.

(PHOTOS: 10 High-End Summer Camps for Kids)

Is the concept behind camps posting pictures detrimental to the camp experience?
The photos encourage a delusion, that you can actually follow your child’s camp journey. You’re not supposed to be following your child’s camp journey. You can’t have it both ways. Parents who want the physical experience but then want in some way to temper or modify the psychological experience are missing the point. There are some kids whose stress levels get so high in novel situations that they can’t do camp. But for the ordinary homesick kid where it takes two or three days to get over homesickness, parents who say “call me” on their backup phone are actually doing harm.

What age is too young?
Talk about sending a 7-year-old to camp, and some parents would think it’s child abuse. A lot of it is cultural and geographic. I think it depends on the temperament of the child and the away-from-home history of the parent.

Why is going to camp important?
If you are a parent who is constantly supervising and monitoring, when you send your child to camp, it throws you up against your own philosophy and habits of constant supervision and control. When you send your child to camp, you have to give that up.

(MORE: Should You Make Your Teen Get a Summer Job?)

So it’s clear that overnight camp is good for parents. What are the benefits for kids?
The number one issue for children is ownership. The thing I heard the most in interviewing hundreds of children is you can really be yourself at camp. When you are in your parent’s presence, there is always shared ownership of your life. When you’re playing soccer, you have the experience of playing soccer and thinking about what your parents think of your playing. The thing kids say they like least about playing sports is driving home with their parents and debriefing the game. Did my daughter want to hear my recap of her games? Did my daughter want to hear my thoughts of her friends? When you go to camp, your parents aren’t there and you own everything that happens to you.

8 comments
GrannyMoosh
GrannyMoosh

I know this is an older thread, but in case I'm not the only person reading it I wanted to make a very important point: THERE IS NO ONE ANSWER FOR EVERY CHILD!


Some children are ready for sleep-away camp when they are very young, and other children are never ready. I was just reading another article by a child therapist who said that the most important thing is to listen to your child and pay attention to their needs, and not get caught up in whatever an article like this says or what the other parents are doing.


I'd say, if you're not sure if your child is ready (or if you aren't ready) then stick to a day camp. The kids have just as much fun, you get some "me" time and they get some "me" time, and you still get to connect with each other every day.


I had a really great experience with soccer summer camp this year, and I really can't recommend it enough. You drop the kids off in the morning and pick them up in the evening, and in between they are having a fantastic time. The thing that sold me on soccer was that hopefully they would pick up a sport that can keep them fit and get them out in the fresh air, and that they'll be able to play anywhere, anytime, with just a ball and a friend. Sure beats the darned xbox! Maybe soccer camp isn't right for your children, but I really believe in finding something active and sporty. This is the company I used http://ussportsinstitute.com/sports-camps.html


I really hope that you can all find the right solution for your individual child and for your individual situation. Happy Camping :-)

JessicaNicole
JessicaNicole

I appreciate that you mentioned the importance of ownership and the fact that children feel like they can be themselves at camp.  This is something I really enjoyed when I was a Camp Director for iD Tech Camps and Academies (http://www.idtech.com/about-id/id-difference/).  Children and teens took classes in subjects such as video game design, computer programming, robotics, and app development.  It was amazing seeing their imaginations come to life and the great final projects they produced by the end of the program.  

travisearl14
travisearl14

Bonnie - great article!  The point about the cell phones is so true.  We take up cell phones every summer and the kids actually thrive on no cell phones.  Over the years I've seen homesickness as a blessing in disguise for kids.  This is a note I wrote to our first year parents on this topic: http://www.camphuawni.com/parents/first-time-at-camp.  

Jess Oberon
Jess Oberon

I'm sorry you feel this way - that you feel you WANT or even NEED to be away from your kids during the summer.  Summer is an opportunity for kids and their parents to RECONNECT and ENJOY activities together.  Yes, I know kids need time on their own and time with other kids without mom and dad and I know there are working parents out there who just love the summer when THEY get some "time off" by sending their kids to camp, but I've never felt that sending them away for weeks at a time was necessary or wanted.  If parents only feel that they need to "parent" while school is in, they're missing the point of it all.  It's not hard to plan activities that kids AND their parents can do together during the summer.  And it's these things that kids will remember - that their mom and dad cared enough about them to take them places and show them things instead of being shoved off to some camp for weeks (or months!) at a time.  My kids have never asked to go to camp.  They tell me they look forward to summertime when they can GO WITH and DO WITH and BE WITH mom and dad because mom and dad care enough to take the time to make the summers fun.

MichiganMom46
MichiganMom46

I have always said to my kids, that school is where you learn, and camp is where you grow. My two daughters LOVE overnight camp. My oldest went for six years and this summer was too old (at 17) to be a camper, but too young to be a counselor. Her younger sister (11) went to a different camp last year, but decided to follow her older sisters footsteps and went to the same camp she did this summer and had a blast. The two girls have this shared experience that has made them so much closer. They are already planning for next summer when one will be a counselor and one a camper. My son (14) on the other hand would probably live on the couch for the rest of his life if he could. 

Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson

I could use this same logic to say I'm sorry that you feel this way - that you WANT and NEED to be away from your kids during the school year. I homeschool precisely so I can have a lot of the experiences you mention are important to your family during the summer - except I do it all year long. (With the exception of the 1 month I send them to camp.)

However, just as homeschooling is not for every family, spending every waking moment of summer together is not for every family either. 

I think the point of this article is just to point out that there are actual benefits to separation for both parents and kids, and it affords some opportunities for experiences that cannot be replicated at home. It's not about getting rid of your kids over the summer.

Kurt Podeszwa
Kurt Podeszwa

Jess - I don't want or need to be away from my children during the summer.  I want them to experience life and that means sometimes without me.  We do lots of things as a family during the summer, and my kids go to camp.  Camp is the place where they can safely figure out things about themselves, be independent and try new things.  Camp is not to replace the family time, it is to give an experience that they cannot have at home.  I absolutely respect your choice to not send your children to camp, I just wanted to clear up some misunderstandings about the camp experience.  Give Michael Thomson's book a read, I think you will find it is different than you think.  (full disclosure, I am a camp director...so I am sure I am biased!)