Camps and Families: How Parents Can Support their Kids at Camp

Summer camps are in full swing. Across the state, kids are throwing themselves into an exciting variety of activities, meeting friends from near and far, and, in many cases, are living away from home for the first time.  And while all those experiences require adjustments for the camper, summer camp may demand some adjustments for parents, too. Two Maine camp professionals – who are tasked with supporting campers and parents alike – say that parents can benefit from a few key tips as they manage the new experience of sending their youngsters to camp. The outcome, these camp directors say, is a greater likelihood of a positive experience for kids and moms and dads alike.

Rich Deering is alumni and community director of Birch Rock Camp, a residential boys’ camp in Waterford.  His approach to helping ensure campers’ success comes from decades in the camping profession.  He calls camp’s relationship with families a “partnership.”

“We’ve got their most valued treasure,” he says.  “The kids are the customers, but the families are our clients.”

Deering says that early in the session, camp staff members check in with new parents via phone or email “to give an update and allay any fears or anxieties.”  Such check-ins generally reassure concerned parents, he says.

Deering says his goal is for each camper “to focus putting his head in the game” while being away from home. He says he tells campers to “put your head where your feet are” as a means of addressing feelings of anxiety and homesickness.

Parents can also support their kids by regularly writing them letters, he says. Deering recommends that the tone of those letters focus on the opportunity and adventure afforded to them by camp, rather than dwelling on the parents’ experience of missing them.

“Their own detachment they have to work through,” Deering says. There are occasional “helicopter parents,” he says, “who just want a verbatim update.” Directing a camp demands focus campers, Deering says, as well as “managing parents’ expectations.”

There are times, he says, that parents “just want to hear someone’s voice that everything’s okay.”

At Camp Wawenock, a girls’ camp in Raymond, director Catriona Sangster says parents may experience more difficulty separating from their daughters simply because, these days, accessibility to kids is greater.

“We are definitely seeing parents more nervous,” she says. “Attachment is different today.”

When parents send their daughters to camp and are unable to talk or text, “it’s a challenge,” Sangster says. Consequently, “we try to make ourselves available to parents so that if they need reassurance from us,” she says. “We understand it’s a big deal to entrust us,” as well as allowing their child to have independence.

Sangster says that helping parents to have “realistic expectations” about their child’s experience is also important.  She says she likes to call parents in the first few days of camp to give an honest report on what she is seeing. Sangster says she also reminds parents that they may receive a sad letter, and that parents shouldn’t promise to come pick their daughters up if things get hard.

Such promises send the message that “in life, when things are difficult you should just give up,” Sangster says.

“I would rather have them partner with us to help the child through the challenge,” she says. “It helps them grow as humans and builds resilience.”

Like Deering, Sangster promotes frequent letter writing, and encourages parents to focus on the camp experience. Asking lots of questions – “what’s going on at camp, who are your cabin mates?” – gives the child a chance to respond, she says.  Parents can make “generic” comments about home, Sangster says, but should avoid writing about events that might make their daughter feel like she is “missing out on a lot at home.”

Camp Wawenock has one seven-week session, and Sangster says parents also need to know that visits can be stressful for the camper. Avoiding long drawn-out good-byes is important, she says.

For all aspects of supporting families “it’s about empathizing with the parent and where they’re coming from,” Sangster says. “It’s a place of love, always.” The camp must strive to “fill their need in a way that works with camp, and also protect the camper experience,” she says.

“For me it’s all about building relationships,” Sangster says. “The greatest reward is when you spend quite a lot of time with a family the first year, and the second year you don’t hear much from them.”

“Once you build that relationship and trust, they are understanding that things are happening as they should.”


Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.