First-Time Camp Experiences: Reassuring Anxious Parents

Sending a child to camp for the first time means facing unknowns. Parents – and their kids – have questions about activities, counselors, and all aspects of camp culture. And some of those questions – what if my child is homesick? – can make parents anxious about the residential camp experience. Yet several parents whose kids attended camp in Maine for the first time last summer say the enrollment process – and the camp experience itself – minimized those worries. Their kids had the time of their lives, and came home demonstrating growth and confidence.

Ellen Cady, of Yarmouth, says her daughter, Hope, was the driving force behind the decision to go to Alford Lake Camp. A friend was talking about the camp, Cady says, and Hope “was hanging on every word.”

“I was excited for her to have that experience,” Cady says. But there was apprehension, too, she admits. Hope had never been away for more than two nights, and the camp session would be three and a half weeks. In addition, Cady says she wondered if Hope was prepared.

“Had I taught her the things to do to care of herself in an environment where I’m not very near her and her dad’s not very near her?”

Cady says the camp employee she met with at the Yarmouth office was “really empathetic and really enthusiastic.”

“I had to totally let it go and just trust that she would be okay, and she totally was.”

“She went off to camp and she came back with all these new skills that she had gained on her own.”

Callie Brown, 13, of Middletown, RI, attended Camp Arcadia, in Casco. Brown’s mother, Beth, says the experience “exceeded all expectations.”

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anxiety, “a fear of the unknown,” Brown says. She addressed that fear by talking to camp director Louise Fritts Johnson, as well as to other parents.

“Something that made me really comfortable was that the camp has been around so long, has been in Louise’s family so long,” Brown says.

Yet dropping her off on opening day was stressful, Brown says. “My husband was incredibly uncomfortable. ‘As a father,’ he said, ‘I’m not supposed to be dropping my daughter off with strangers.’”

“It’s not like I dropped her into this camp without heavy research,” Brown says.

“I knew it was going to be an incredible experience for her.”

Callie had had an auto-immune disease as an eight-year-old, which “put a whole different lens” on their lives, Brown says. “When you go through something like that, everything is a little more intense, and everything is sweeter.”

One policy at Camp Arcadia is that campers cannot speak by telephone with their parents for the first 10 days of camp. Beth Brown says the day she got through on the phone with Callie, Callie was “super comfortable.”

And at the end of her two-week stay? “She came back more independent, definitely more confident,” Brown says.

Johnson, Camp Arcadia’s director, says parents experience different types of anxiety depending upon where they are in the enrollment process. One question that comes up more frequently is how the camp integrates new girls and new families into the camp community, Johnson says.

Parents are encouraged to enroll their daughters early to “get them into the camp family,” Johnson says. Families are given contact information for other families in their area and in the camper’s age group, she says. And beginning in January, families receive monthly communications on various topics, such as homesickness. Come March, campers are assigned a pen pal. They are also assigned a big sister, Johnson says.

Parental concerns vary, Johnson says. Parents want to know how the camp recruits staff, and they also have concerns about their daughters’ abilities to take care of themselves.

“Great counselors,” serve as “great role models” in that department, Johnson says. “There’s nervousness,” she says. “Is my child going to be taken care of the way I take care of them?”

Johnson says her winter staff works hard to forge an “individual, custom relationship” with each family sending their daughter to camp.

Melissa Lasher, of Nashville, has just such a relationship with Andy Lilienthal, director of Camp Winnebago in Fayette. Lasher, whose brother attended Winnebago as a child, has a nine-year-old son, Abe, who completed his first seven-week session at Winnebago last summer.

“We felt like we were really aligned with the camp and how to handle problems,” Lasher says. “We knew in our absence things would be handled really well.”

One such concern was homesickness, and Lasher said Abe’s counselors had “gone above and beyond” in supporting him.

Abe’s summer was a complete success, Lasher says.

Whether a camper attends camp for a couple of weeks or an entire summer, parents sending their children for the first time are bound to experience a degree of anxiety. Camp directors are familiar with parents’ questions and fears, and camp procedures are geared toward addressing such concerns. Through phone calls, written communications, and in-person meetings, parents benefit from a broad range of camp outreach. The result is a open line of communication and, come opening day, an arrival marked with excitement, enthusiasm, and preparation.

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.