One of the most homesick kids I ever met in 22 years of running a summer camp in Algonquin Park was a sweet eight-year-old from California. Bobby couldn't stop crying. Day 1 of camp turned to Day 5 and still this little guy was missed his parents terribly. He was mopy and teary, wasn't making friends and didn't have fun at activities. We were calling his parents for help daily. They had no idea what to do either.
On Day 6, when we were pressing them for ways to make camp feel more like home, Bobby's mother said, "Well, he has a plant at home." We ran out of the office, yanked a plant out of my garden, crammed it into a pot and presented it to Bobby: "This is your plant to take care of."
He beamed, and from that day on Bobby was Joe Camper, ever the enthusiast. He was my best teacher about homesickness. I don't believe it was the plant (a clump of bee balm) that did it, but rather what it represented. For him, that plant symbolized our commitment to get to know him, discover his needs and build a relationship with him. He no longer felt alone.
Many kids get a little homesick the first few nights of camp. It's normal to miss Mom and Dad, especially the first time a child goes to sleep-away camp. After all, sleeping away from home is a major developmental step. It's typical to have a few tears at bedtime and mealtimes – important family times, when children are used to being with their parents.
At Camp Arowhon, our goal is always to mimic the routines of home. At bedtime, we read stories and sit on each child's bed and hear about his or her day. We get to know the campers and foster new friendships so they feel connected and understood. We run them off their feet all day so that when their head hits the pillow, they're off to dreamland.
All of this usually clears up homesickness quickly. Kids like Bobby are rare, but the lessons learned from him stand us in good stead with everyone as we help them along the road to independence.
There's a lot you can do to minimize homesickness:
1. Include your child in every aspect of planning, from choosing the camp to buying camp stuff and packing. Empowered kids get less homesick.
2. Help your child develop a plan just in case he or she gets get homesick. Normalize it by talking about the feelings, and making a list of things to do to feel better (do an activity, talk to a counsellor).
3. Project 100-per-cent confidence in your child's ability to rise to this challenge. That helps him believe in his own ability to be on his own. Believing he can do it gets him halfway there.
4. Don't talk about how much you'll miss your child, or how sad you'll be while she's gone. Your sadness will be contagious.
5. Practise camp. Arrange a weekend for your camper-to-be at a friend's house. Make it like camp by not calling her. When you drop your child off, give the other parents two letters, one to give her each lunchtime. After she comes home, praise her independence and ask her how it felt. Get her to list all the ways she soothed herself when she missed you, and to start a list on how to soothe herself at camp.
6. Write daily upbeat letters so your child gets support from you while at camp. Hearing from you and knowing you're out there cheering him on will help him grow into his new independence.
7. Calendars can be helpful. Get him to mark off (and maybe decorate) all the camp days on a wall calendar. Show him what a small number of days it is compared with long times like the school year. Visual aids that frame time help kids gain perspective.
8. Ask your child what worries her about camp and problem-solve them together. Common worries are: taking a shower for the first time, brushing their own hair, swimming in a lake, as well as leeches and snapping turtles. The first two are easy: Help her practise self-care skills. Fears about the lake are more complicated. If you can arrange for a weekend on a lake with lots of swimming, familiarity will increase comfort. As for fear of critters in the water (a common worry among young children), two strategies work: Help your child research the incidence (and dangers) of leeches and snapping turtles. When she finds out that these critters are about as threatening to her as ants, she will calm down. If she still feels worried about the lake (or anything else), arrange a visit with the camp director to talk through these fears.
9. Don't make early pickup deals. The parent who says, "I'll come and get you if you're homesick," is expressing lack of confidence in the child's ability to manage, and thus reducing it. When your child asks what will happen if he's homesick,
tell him you trust the staff at camp to help him adjust and you know he's going to have a great time.
10. If you get an "I hate camp" letter, bear in mind that it was probably written several days previously and your child may now be loving camp. The letter was probably written in a moment of sadness that has been long forgotten. Before jumping in the car, call the camp, tell them about the letter and ask them to research the situation and get back to you.
Joanne Kates is the director of Camp Arowhon.