Sleepover camp is just what kids—and parents—need

Overnight camp is good for kids, so get over your ‘childsickness’

Send your kid to camp

Tony Anderson/GETTY IMAGES

For some parents, sending a child to a four-week sleepover camp is right up there with child abuse. That’s misguided, because kids can learn more and experience their sweetest memories when they’re away from home, says Michael Thompson, a Massachusetts-based child psychologist.

Thompson, who went to a canoe camp in northern Ontario as a teen, has written several parenting books including the New York Times bestseller Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. In his new book, Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow, he writes: “If you read [Malcolm Gladwell’s] Outliers, you are likely to conclude that the best parenting means constantly being with your child, talking to them, sending them to some academic program or another.”

Not so, contends Thompson. Many kids do less well when parents are supervising, and heaping praise on a child to instill self-esteem may backfire. He gives the example of a child who fails a swim test all the other kids in the cabin pass on the first day. That child is going to feel bad, no way around it, he writes. But when that child passes the test in the second week, he’ll feel a sense of achievement like nothing else.

“Here’s the hard part for parents,” he writes. “It is far more likely the child will pass the swim test under the gaze of a 19-year-old counsellor than he or she would with you. When a child is anxious or frightened, it sets off a parent’s anxious identification, and when the child sees the worry in the parent’s face—or worse yet, a forced cheerfulness that doesn’t fool a child for a second—it makes the child even more anxious. Parental efforts to provide continual encouragement and scaffolding can undermine a child’s confidence.”

At camp, kids try new foods and tend to come home less picky. Camp dining is a communal experience, and when a child complains about the chicken patties, he’s told, “Well, that’s what there is for dinner tonight.” Thompson, who serves as a camp consultant, explains that when children see other kids their age eating stuff they’ve never been willing to try, they’re game to experience the very thing their mother has been unable to get them to eat for years.

Another bonus is camp kids are more willing to help around the house. “Camp directors have drawers full of letters from parents thanking them for sending back a child who is suddenly willing to do chores. She now picks up her clothes or helps with dishes, the parents write, suggesting that there has been some kind of magical transformation.” When a child is asked to clean his cabin, Thompson explains, he does it to impress his camp counsellor and to show his peers he’s pulling his weight. When a mother asks a child to pick something up, the child feels as if he’s being babied.

At camp, kids don’t use electronic gadgets and revert to old-fashioned letter writing. “Where else in the modern world do people write letters every week and wait eagerly to receive them from others? When I ask camp staff whether kids experience withdrawal symptoms from leaving their gadgets at home, they tell me no. According to one counsellor, most children are relieved to be away from the constant pressure of keeping up socially online.”

Camp directors tell Thompson the parents’ “childsickness” is a bigger problem than their kids’ homesickness; camp staff don’t know handle the parents who “yearn continually for contact with their children, and who are complicit in smuggling cellphones into camps.” This constant communication only makes homesickness worse.

According to Thompson, most kids experience homesickness, but parents can help by preparing their child beforehand. Talk about it, he advises. If you avoid the topic, a 10-year-old girl might feel as if she is the only one who is weak, he explains. Tell your child homesickness is perfectly natural and it just means you have a home worth missing. Kids need to experience “a little suffering in life, along with the full range of feelings in life—boredom, anger, giddiness, romance, etc.—to get the hang of it on their own,” Thompson writes.

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