Camp is a stepping-stone to self-reliance. It’s where kids learn to navigate on their own without well-intentioned parents plotting around them to avert choppy waters. I confess to the compelling desire to negotiate smooth sailing for my children, yet over the years, as a camp director, I have witnessed first-hand the incredible journeys of kids who come to recognize their own power to steer their destinies.

Opportunities for decision-making and problem-solving at camp allows kids to discover their strengths and abilities for making good choices and influencing positive outcomes for themselves. Fellow directors concur.

“Overnight camp offers campers the opportunity to learn to be independent of their parents and to learn to make good decisions,” says BJ Davis, director of YMCA Camp Ocoee. “With the overnight experience, parents have to be willing to let go of their child and trust that they are in a protected environment designed to build children up and teach life skills they will use the rest of their lives,” he adds.

Coaching kids to feel capable is what directors and counselors do. Not quite so obvious (but just as important) is their proficiency to coach parents to support their children with just the right combination of back-up and encouragement. Kids learn quickly to rely upon themselves and the adults they trust at camp instead of their parents, who could be 100 miles away or more.

“One or two weeks away form home in a safe, caring environment can be an incredible opportunity,” says Mike Wood, director of McCallie Sports Camp. “Children gain independence, learn to make decisions on their own, interact with kids from other communities and get what I like to call a ‘break from the culture.’ No cell phones, computers, video games, etc.”

Lara Calloway, program director at Valley View Ranch Equestrian Camp, adds, “The best part of going away from home is definitely the confidence, pride and self-esteem gained from the newfound independence in learning new skills.” “It is normal for kids and parents to be uncomfortable during the first few days, but typically by the end of camp, both the parents and kids are glad they had the experience,” says Wood.

How do parents and camps cooperate to help kids gain just the right degree of independence?

• Many camps have a designated contact person. During the decision-making process, ask questions that give you an idea of the partnering and communication philosophy of the camp and learn who the primary contact person is — build rapport early.

• Remember that directors have a reservoir of experiences to back their counsel to you. Know, too, that they have your child’s best interests at heart and the skill to guide your child towards an appropriate level of independence, self-confidence and success.

• Keep in mind that kids often triumph over their adjustment to a new environment before their parents can accept the next stage of their development! Do not offer to rescue your child; that only confirms for him that you believe he cannot cope with something that is difficult.

• Get on board with the notion of supporting kids to solve their own problems or asking a trusted counselor for help; let him experience the real world in the camp setting, not the one that you sculpt for him during the rest of the year. Picture success! It’s a leap of faith to let your kids fly from the nest; it is the greatest gift you can bestow. The key is to build the nest in a tree that gives you a sense of security, so do your homework to find the right fit — there is a camp for every child and a feeling of comfort for every parent.  

 -- Marla Coleman is a past president of the American Camp Association, she is a co-owner of Coleman Family Camps, which includes Camp Echo and Coleman Country Day Camp. Adapted from CAMP Magazine, reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association.

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