When your children go to camp this summer, will you really let them go? Camp directors see “kid-sick” parents far more than homesick campers, says Bob Ditter, a licensed therapist who specializes in summer camp and consults for the American Camp Association (ACA) and other youth development agencies.

What's Okay?

If your child is away at overnight camp, it’s appropriate to write him—even every day—and show your interest in new friends and new activities. It’s even okay to say you miss him, as long as you keep it upbeat. “Children get anxious when parents sound distressed,” says Cheryl Magen, president of the ACA’s Keystone Section and an educational consultant and former camp director. “Do send short, frequent letters to your child; campers love mail,” adds Kim Betts, director of administration at Camp Horizons, a West Virginia residential camp celebrating its 28th year.

What's Not Okay?

It’s not appropriate to obsess over how many times you see your child on the camp’s secure website photo gallery or to examine each photo, looking for clues about your child’s state of mind. Betts says, “We post a daily newsletter and photos simply to give parents a glimpse of daily camp life, but some parents complain because there aren't enough pictures of their child, or their child isn't smiling enough in the photos. We want parents to remember that the reason we are here is to take care of their children.”

Website photos are a fairly recent development for summer camps, which have been an American institution for 150 years. Up until a decade ago, parents would feel lucky just to speak with their overnight campers once every two weeks; but today’s parents, who have grown accustomed to electronic access, can unwittingly sabotage a successful camp experience.

Let Go!

Camp is a place where children learn many life skills, including self-reliance and conflict resolution. But it’s hard to build new friendships or develop independence when you’re texting or talking to parents or friends from home. Camp is also about leaving electronics home and reconnecting with the natural world. Although most camps don’t allow campers to bring video games or cell phones or access the Internet (without supervision), some parents send their child with a cell phone “just in case.”

Ditter knows of parents who conspire with their kids by sendng two or more cell phones in the child’s belongings. “These parents tell kids to hand one phone in when camp personnel collect them, and keep the others hidden to call home whenever they can. What the parent is really saying is that camp isn't a safe place and that their parents are indispensable,” says Ditter.

“One of the many things children learn at camp, guided by trained counselors and group leaders, is how to work out their own problems,” says Magen. “Every camp director has experienced a child writing or calling home and complaining about some conflict, only to have the parent call to intervene and find that the problem has already been solved.”

"We have phones available at camp and our directors all carry cell phones, but we do not allow campers to call home for a number of reasons. We strive to have open and honest relationships with our campers and their families, but sending a phone with your camper tells her that it's okay to break the rules,” says Betts.

Ditter recalls a camp parent who showed up unexpectedly at the front gate of a resident camp after getting secret e-mails from her daughter. “The mother insisted on marching down to her daughter’s cabin to ‘straighten the other girls out,’” says Ditter. Besides potentially embarrassing her daughter, she certainly conveyed that she didn’t think her daughter could handle this problem. A much better strategy would have been to call the camp director to discuss the situation first.

“Parents are understandably concerned about the quality of care their children are receiving at camp, just as they are at school or day care. What parents need to do is decide, based on talking to other parents who've had experience with the camp and from their own direct conversations with the camp director, whether they trust the camp or not. When parents don’t let go, it sends messages that the world is unsafe and that children cannot negotiate the world, even in a safe and highly monitored environment, without their parents’ intervention. This encourages dependency and retards the development of autonomy and growth,” Ditter says.

Communicate

Karen J. Rosenbaum, founder/director of TIC Summer Camp, a D.C.-area day camp in its 27th year, says, “Most parents try very hard to do the best things for their kids, and they’re doing a great job. The best thing you can do to ensure a good camp experience is to establish a partnership with the camp director. And the only way to do that is with full communication back and forth.”

“Please don’t tell me on the last day of camp that there was something I could have fixed on the first day,” says Rosenbaum. She encourages parents to call her whenever they have a problem or concern and also to tell her when there are things going on at home that may affect how the child behaves at camp.

Because today’s parents tend to micromanage more than parents of decades past, Rosenbaum is quicker now to call home to keep parents informed. She tries to work constructively with parents to resolve situations, but parents don’t always cooperate. “I called a mother to discuss how we might, together, manage her child’s unacceptable behavior. Rather than work with me on strategies to solve the problem, she took the child out of camp.” The lesson this child got was that he can do whatever he wants and Mommy will rescue him. It’s not a lesson that helps children grow.

“Camp directors understand that parents want to know if their child is happy or unhappy. But you know your child. If your kid is the kind who takes a little while to get comfortable in a new situation, watch and wait. If your child is not making an adjustment, call us. Be calm. Be reasonable. We also want your child to be happy, and we will do whatever we can to remedy a situation. Communicate and work with the camp,” Rosenbaum says.

Respect the Rules

Ditter tells of a mother who insisted on visiting her daughter’s day camp every day to hold a towel around the child while she changed for the pool. Rosenbaum recalls a mother who insisted on accompanying her son to his first camp activity to make sure he liked his group. In each case, well-meaning parents got in the way of their children’s ability to connect with other campers, and better solutions could have been found.

Parents are more likely to trust camp leadership when they have done their homework in choosing a camp. “I am always surprised when first-time camper families sign up and send their child to camp, having never called to ask questions or visited the camp prior to summer,” says Betts. “We want to do everything we can to make campers and their families feel comfortable before camp starts, as well as during the session.”

Rosenbaum adds that children will be more successful at camp when they have participated in the research and the decision. She says, “Kids don’t want to feel that they are being forced into going to a camp, and they often resent a camp their parents chose for them. When kids have a say in the choice and make a commitment themselves, they will be more willing to give camp a try and stick with it.”

Ditter advises parents to discuss their expectations with their children. He says, “Children should be encouraged to try new things, pitch in and help out, ask counselors or adults for help if they need it (don't ‘save it up’ to complain at home), make some new friends and at the same time, remember that you don't have to be friends with everyone!”

What else can parents do to nurture a good experience for everyone? “Make sure you send your child to camp with everything he needs,” says Betts. “We had a young camper who packed himself come to camp without socks and underwear.”

“Be considerate of other parents, and follow the camp’s rules, even for the carpool line,” suggests Rosenbaum. “When parents pop in anytime, it interferes with the camp day. And if your child will be arriving late or leaving early, let us know ahead of time.”

“Complete all medical and information forms openly and honestly, and don’t take children off medication they take during the school year without alerting your doctor and the camp director,” says Ditter. “If you’re concerned about the forms, call the camp. The more you can share with camp leadership about your child, the better they can help your child to be a happy camper.”