The first time I ever saw Rockbrook was in July of 1999. I was eight-years-old, and my two-week session was to be the longest I had ever been away from my parents. I was so nervous that I could hardly sit still in the car ride up the mountain. Whenever anybody asked me, of course, I’d tell them that I couldn’t wait for camp to start. I had memorized the activities listed in the catalogue, and picked out exactly which ones I was going to sign up for first (Riflery, Archery, Sports and Games, and Tennis, if you were wondering). I was excited. But I was also scared to death.
It’s not too late, I remember thinking to myself. I can still call to them, or just jump in the car and let them take me home.
But I stayed quiet, and I stayed put (I was much too stubborn, even then, to admit that I might have been scared), and it wasn’t long after I saw their car disappear down the driveway that I forgot all about those butterflies that had been giving me second thoughts. That moment on the hill was the only instant of homesickness that I ever remember feeling at camp. Of course, thinking about it logically, fifteen years later, I know that there must have been other moments in which I felt lost and overwhelmed in this new environment—but those moments are so fully overshadowed by the memories of my first camp friends, the first time I ever held a bow, and my first time stepping into the most wonderfully boisterous Dining Hall my eight-year-old eyes had ever beheld, that only that first instant of uncertainty has managed to stick in my memory.
There are plenty of campers, new and returning, who come to camp every year and don’t look back, just as I did. They are too excited and too busy to have any time for homesickness. But there are just as many, if not more, who don’t find it so easy to be away from home for the first time.
I have seen campers deal with homesickness every year that I have been at camp, each in her own way. There are those who hold it in, keeping a stiff upper lip with the understanding that it’ll get easier if they don’t think about it. There are those who become sad and listless, and can’t bring themselves to fully partake in their activities. There are those who throw temper tantrums. And then there are those who are simply scared, terrified to be away from the safety net that they know and trust for the first time.
As a parent sending your child into someone else’s care for the first time, I know that the thought of which of these reactions your own daughter will have must be at the forefront of your mind. The truth is, there’s no way to tell what form her homesickness will take—if any at all—until the day comes. It may be that your daughter takes to the camp lifestyle like a duck to water, and will beg you on closing day to let her stay forever. On the other hand, it is just as possible that you will be getting a letter from her three days into camp, begging you to come and fetch her right away, with her tearstains circled on the page for good measure.
Your first instinct upon finding out that your daughter is scared and upset without you will of course be to come and rescue her immediately. After all, if she’s afraid, then how could she have the presence of mind to learn and grown in all the ways that camp has to offer? If she is crying to her counselor during rest hour, how will she have the time or energy to make friends with her peers? While this is a perfectly understandable response, I hope you’ll think twice before taking the step of ending her camp experience before it’s really even begun. And it might not be easy. In all the preparations leading up to camp, in all the conversations with your daughter about what it will be like for her to be away, it’s easy to forget that your daughter’s homesickness will be just as hard for you.
So if the moment comes that you find yourself reaching for your keys, considering driving to Brevard to pick up your daughter without a second thought, here are a few things I hope you’ll remember:
- Whatever form homesickness takes, it is almost always fleeting. The first few days of camp—when your daughter is still working through the first stages of friendship with her cabinmates, figuring out her way around camp, and feeling like she just doesn’t quite “get” camp yet—are always going to be the hardest. But things move fast at camp. Within a week, she will have at least one friend whom she will consider her Best Friend Ever, she will be navigating the camp property like a pro, and singing the camp songs at mealtimes just as loudly and enthusiastically as everyone else. Chances are, by the time you’ve received the artfully tearstained letter, she will already have forgotten that she ever asked you for rescue.
- Our staff knows how to help her. Between your daughter’s counselors, her activity instructors, and the camp directors, she will be surrounded at all times by compassionate adults wanting to help her to love camp as much as we do. Our staff is trained intensively, taught to recognize the signs of homesickness, even if your daughter is doing her best to hide it. Whether she needs to talk it out, or just to be distracted until the feeling passes, the Rockbrook staff is there to help.
- She wants to love camp. This is often a tough one to remember: nobody wants to be homesick. She’ll see other campers enjoying all that camp has to offer, and she will want to be enjoying it right along with them. Lots of times, what homesick campers really want is not necessarily to be taken home, but rather to feel just as comfortable within the camp community as they do at home. Some girls reach that level of comfort right away, while others take a little while longer. If given the time to get her bearings, often the homesickness will vanish on its own.
- We always appreciate your help. It might be tempting, in this instance, to ask us to let you speak to your daughter on the phone—after all, you have more experience than anyone in calming her fears and making her feel safe. We’ve found, though, that such phone calls nearly always make the situation worse—in fact, I can guarantee that every phone call home will end in tears. Even if hearing your voice makes her feel better at first, once she hangs up the phone, she will have to start the process of separation from you all over again. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t help! We know that you are the expert on your daughter. You know her favorite games, her comfort foods, the stories that can put her to sleep. The directors and your daughter’s counselors will be working with your daughter through her homesickness, and we are happy to talk to you anytime about any tips you might have on how to make her camp experience as rewarding as possible.
- Hard as it is, she will come through it much stronger than before. It’s not always easy for us to recognize when a difficult situation is changing us in positive ways. If your daughter is homesick, all she will be able to recognize in the moment is that she is feeling scared and alone, and she would like to stop feeling that way. It’s a bit too much to ask for an eight-year-old to see that her current discomfort will make her a stronger, more independent person, which is why we as a staff and as parents need to remember it for her. Because there will come a triumphant moment for her as camp goes on, when she realizes that her homesickness is gone. But even if that moment never comes—even if her homesickness lasts the whole length of camp (which can happen, though it’s rare), she’ll still come out of it stronger than before. She will realize, maybe for the first time in her life, that she has the strength within her to withstand a truly challenging situation. She won’t forget that the next time another of those situations comes along.
Homesickness is a serious matter, and we treat it as such at camp. We never ignore it if a camper seems homesick; we are proactive about helping them through it, and keeping you, as her parents, updated on her progress. But the first brush with homesickness in childhood is not a circumstance to be avoided. It’s a formative, if sometimes painful experience, that prepares your child for those difficult moments to come—the first day of high school, the first day of a new job—when she might feel disoriented or out of her element, and help is not near at hand.
It’s important to prepare both your daughter and yourself for the challenges she might face in acclimating to camp. You should let her know that there is no shame in feeling homesick—in fact, it’s something that almost everyone feels at some point in their camp experience, whether or not they show outward signs of it. Most importantly though, it is critical avoid making any “pick-up deals,” or promises that you will come and get her right away the moment she asks. If your daughter knows the possibility is on the table, then what motivation is there for her to work through the issues on her own? Tell her how confident you are in her ability to make it through without your help—with your vote of confidence, and the knowledge that there’s no “easy out” at her disposal, she will be much more likely to grit her teeth and persevere.
Sometimes I wonder if I had actually called out to my mom, that day in 1999, if she would have let me climb into the car and drive back to safety. If she would have told me that we could leave camp for another year, taken me out for ice cream to make me feel better, then brought me home. I probably would have thanked her for it that day. I certainly would have felt more comfortable with that turn of events than I was standing on that hill with a virtual stranger.
But sitting here in the Rockbrook office fifteen years later, looking back on all the tangible ways I can point to that my experiences with camp have made me a better and a stronger person, I really hope she would have told me no.