Traps to Avoid as a First-time Camp Parent

When parents send their children off to summer camp for the first time, there’s bound to be some nervousness mixed in with feelings of excitement. Like any new experience, it’s natural to worry a little about how it might turn out. Will she make friends, like the food, get homesick, handle camp routines, sleep well, and have fun —all while being on her own away from home?

girls displaying their pottery projects

Believe it or not, these feelings of anxiety are often more commonly experienced by the parents of new campers. The campers themselves, after all, get to attend camp and enjoy all of the benefits it provides, while the parents stay home. The campers join a fun-filled community, meet kind, happy people, and have the chance to try all sorts of new activities. The parents do not. And since they’re separated from their children, it can be difficult for parents to not worry.

Most camps try to address this worry a number of different ways. For example, they post a daily photo gallery of happenings at camp. They write news updates and blog posts on their website. They ask their counselors to write short letters or cards home updating parents on their child’s camp experience. These all go a long way in reassuring parents while their children are at camp.

Prior to camp, however, being worried like this can lead parental instincts astray. Intending to make their child (and themselves!) feel better about going to camp, parents might say or do something that will ultimately undermine their child’s success. Being inexperienced with camp, parents might make things worse!

Here are 10 essential tips parents need to know before sending their kids off to summer camp. For the sake of their kid’s camp experience, we wish all first-time camp parents knew these things to avoid.

summer camp tetherball buddies

1. Don’t promise an early pick up.
This is the most important thing to avoid. It can be tempting to calm down a nervous child by saying “If you don’t like it, I will come pick you up,” but it’s bound to backfire. If you make this sort of promise, your camper will be in “evaluation mode” when they arrive. Instead of fully embracing camp life, honestly engaging with it, they’ll be holding back, being more of a critic than a participant. Then, when something inevitably doesn’t go exactly right (maybe, it’s raining, or there is a spider in the shower, or their bunkmate is really messy), they’ll decide that this is the moment that they need to leave early. This is a shame because camps are experts at helping children resolve these sorts of problems, at empowering them, and through the experience, building their self-confidence.

So, rather than promising an early pick up, focus on your child’s inner strengths. Say something like, “I know this is new and that may make you nervous. But I have faith in you. I know you and how strong you are and also how fun you are. Once you get to know some of the other kids in your cabin and your cool counselor, I bet you’ll be feeling better about everything. And I know you really can’t wait to ride those horses. I look forward to reading your letters and hearing all about it when you get home.”

This is a much better message for a child to hear. Say “I know you can do it. I have faith in you and trust in the camp,” rather than the subtle message, “You may not be strong enough for this or this may not be easy for you, and so I can come rescue you.” See the difference, and how powerful that can be?

summer camp children relaxing in the lake

2. Don’t show your own anxiety about camp.
This can be a little more difficult, but try to stay calm and positive about camp even if you are feeling uneasy or a little anxious yourself. Shielding your camper from how you are feeling will help avoid worrying her. When children are away from home, they sometimes worry that their parents are OK. Reassure your camper that you’ll be fine at home without them, maybe just a little bored! Again, communicate your excitement for them and your trust in the camp.

3. Don’t tell your child you are staying nearby.
If they are still adjusting to camp, they will be very aware of the day you are leaving the area. Just like above, they don’t really let themselves embrace the fun of camp. On the day you are leaving the area, they can be so aware of it, they might try to figure out how to reach you, making it much more difficult to work through their feelings of homesickness. It’s best to avoid planting this idea that you can easily return to camp. Leading up to camp, keep the focus on your child and the fun they’ll be having when they arrive.

4. Don’t ask that your camper be allowed to call home.
Most camps, like Rockbrook, do not allow campers to call home because it interrupts their experience and usually contributes to homesickness. We are experienced with helping campers adjust to camp, and using the telephone is a hindrance. Camp is a lovely way to slow down and to encourage letter writing. It is also a break for parents to not be called to immediately fix something that a child is struggling with. There are lessons of resilience at camp that are best learned without parents’ help.

summer camp children taking it easy

5. Don’t send your child with a cell phone.
Here too, Rockbrook, like most camps, does not allow campers to have a cellphone because it both interferes with the goals of being technology-free, and pulls them out of camp life. Also, it negatively affects the other campers in the cabin. They are either drawn to also want to use the phone, or they are annoyed by having the phone interfere with the fun of being with their cabin-mates. If there is ever something concerning going on, the camp will reach out to you. Plus, parents can always call the camp to check in if they have a specific concern.

6. Don’t write to your child describing fun things you are doing without her.
Just like seeing a fun party on social media that you were not invited to, hearing about something fun you or your family is doing without your child is not helpful while they are away at camp. Instead, the message should be “Home is good but nothing unusual. I look forward to hearing more about what you are doing at camp when you get home.”

7. Don’t write with news about disturbing current events.
We all need a break from the news cycle. Camp is your child’s opportunity to fully relax and forget about the hustle and bustle of daily life. Your kids have worked hard in school all year and they deserve a chance to relax and just be kids. They cannot do anything about it, and troubling news of the outside world can be mostly a worry for them.

teenage girls on whitewater rafting trip

8. Don’t promise you’ll send care packages.
We have found that care packages interfere with the camp experience and sets up a hierarchy of “haves” and “have nots” in a cabin group. The children receive plenty of fun things and treats while they are at camp. For this reason, many camps, like Rockbrook, have an “no package” policy. Of course, if your child forgot an item, you can call or email the office, and we can help you with that item or approve a package for you to send. Instead mail your camper lots of letters and cards.

9. Don’t overpack.
One of the beautiful lessons of camp is to learn to simplify. If a child doesn’t have an item, they improvise or borrow from a friend or live without it for their short time at camp. The cabins are snug and with several people sharing one space, it’s much better for campers to avoid having too many things to keep organized.

10. Don’t send hair dye with you child.
We’re mostly joking about this, but it has happened! Yes, camp is a place to explore, grow more resilient and confident, but we want children to leave camp looking essentially the same as when they arrived. Maybe they will be a little messier, with a few bug bites, and a newfound gleam in their eye, but we do not want them to drastically change their appearance at camp. So, even though it was funny when the twins on “The Parent Trap” cut their hair and pierced their ears at summer camp, in reality, we don’t allow that.

We wish all camp parents kept these ten things in mind. They each warn against common traps we’ve seen over the years. You’ve made the great decision to send your child to camp, and with these tips, you’ll be helping them love their time away.

three rockbrook camp girls wearing bucket hats