I was nine years old my first summer at camp. When I came home, my mother (who had never been a camper herself) unzipped my duffel bag and was shocked — everything was wet, smelly, covered with sand, and starting to turn a little green. The next summer, as we packed for what I knew would be the best three weeks of the year, she sat me down and told me that I should remember three things while I was away: have fun, don’t do anything stupid, and, most importantly, don’t mix wet with dry. When I went to college, she put a note in my bag telling me how proud she was of me and reminding me of these same three rules. For my family, these have become shorthand for how to take care of yourself.
Over the past few weeks, there have been blog posts sprouting up about preparing for camp. Certainly there are clothes to buy, envelopes to address, bags to pack. In the midst of all these logistics, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important — preparing your kids for an experience of growth and self-exploration. As a camp director, it’s my job to provide an environment for your kids to thrive and grow; as parents, it’s your job to give them the grounding they need to make this possible. So, here are some things I’ve learned from parents (and campers) along the way that may help you take a break from packing to get your kids really ready for camp…
Don’t forget family traditions! One Friday afternoon, I was running around camp getting ready for Shabbat. I walked through the office and saw a fax coming off the machine for one of our teen campers. I looked over and was perplexed: on the piece of paper were images of two hands. At dinner that night, I handed the paper to the camper and her eyes lit up. “They are my dad’s hands,” she said, as she turned the paper over and put it on her head. “He blesses me every week for Shabbat, and since we’re not together, this is how he can do it.” As the weeks of that summer and many others followed, I always knew that the fax machine would ring just before Shabbat or the FedEx would arrive on Friday morning. And I knew that, even though they were in different places, this father would always bless his daughter for Shabbat.
Kids love being away at camp, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be connected to what’s going on at home. If you bless your child on Friday night, send her the blessing in a note every week. If you read your child a poem every night before he falls asleep, send it on a card for him to post next to his bed. Showing kids that they can be independent but also deeply connected to you is one of the most important parts of sending them away.
Don’t forget to ask for help! A friend sent her oldest child to camp a few years ago with an instruction: when they take your picture for the website, put a thumbs up if you’re doing okay and if something is wrong, leave your hands at your side. This was their way of ensuring that, if something was wrong, the mother would know to call camp to check it out.
On one hand, I love this: a secret code between parent and child that allows them to communicate “in real time” over the summer when we don’t allow phone calls, emails, or texts. On the other hand, I hope that parents will also tell their children: if you’re having a hard time, make sure you to talk to a friend or a counselor. If that person isn’t able to help you feel better, go talk to a group leader or head counselor. (Think of it kind of like asking to speak with a manager when you don’t get the answer you want from customer service.) And if that doesn’t work — go straight to the top. I know that every camp is set up differently and that camp directors are busy people. But I, for one, want to know if a kid is having a tough time so that we can work together to make things better; as camp professionals, we live for these moments when we can help kids overcome challenges.
It’s good that this mother and son had a way to ensure that both had peace of mind during his first summer away. But it’s also important to teach your kid that sometimes she needs to speak up for herself when she’s unhappy. It’s important for kids to know that there are adults, in addition to their parents, they can trust. Camp is a safe place to try this out.
Don’t forget who you are! Camps are fond of saying that they help children to build character. At Camp JRF, we help campers (and staff) understand that they aren’t building who they are — they just need to be who they already are, being sure to live their values and ideals in all they do. Our staff has heard me tell this story many times: I walked by two 12-year-old boys, one of whom was with us for the first time and had, apparently, just made fun of another camper. The other boy, who was with us for his second summer, looked at him and said: “that’s not how we act here.” This boy took pride in our camp culture, but he also took pride in his role as a friend, an ally, and a member of the community.
Before they leave for camp, talk with your kids about values. Remind them of their deepest held values. Discuss what it means to stand up for someone else. Let them know how proud you are of them for remembering to be their best selves, even in moments where it’s challenging.
So as you finish those last minute preparations for this summer, take a moment to remind your kids of who they are as individuals and as part of your family. Remind them of the blessings you share with them, let them know that it’s okay (even more than okay!) to ask for help, and give them the power to stand up for others.
Oh yeah — and don’t forget to tell them not to mix wet with dry.