For the past two years we have sent our 11 year old son to sleepover camp. While he seemed to have a good time while he was there, he has expressed he gets very homesick, especially at night. He is an only child, an introvert and a bit of a deep thinker but he has friends and doesn’t have any issues socializing. The first year, he admitted he was very nervous about going but said he would try his best to have a good time. We encouraged him and told him we knew he could handle himself. The following year, we signed him up to go with a friend and again he managed, but has said several times through out the year that he is not going to overnight camp again. We are struggling with sending him this year. Every time we bring it up he is vehemently opposed to it. My husband thinks we should drop it and not send him and I was hoping you could provide some input.
Thanks for letting us use your letter. I know many parents have the same concern. When our kids refuse to go to camp, or any other extra-curricular activity for that matter, just how hard should we push? When do we force them against their will?
You mentioned that he is a bit of an introvert and a deep thinker. Sleepover camp is probably where he is hitting his capacity in terms of spending all day being social and then at night, there really isn’t the escape option to be alone and re-charge for more socializing the following day. Without the distractions of others you have time to think about your parents and home life and so you are more likely to miss them as you fall asleep. He may really want to tell you about his first time paddling a canoe and you are not there to hear his stories. Perhaps he wants to complain about someone who didn’t treat him well that day and he wants your emotional support, but you are not there. Listen and explore all of his reasons for not wanting to go.
The fact that he has tried out camp already and is “hysterical” about going back to camp this year, tells me he has already made up his mind! If you take him to camp against his will, he may decide to get creative about how to get out of camp. He may cry so long and hard the camp suggests you pick him up. Or he will go, but not participate as a form of protest. These are all creative expressions of his position “I will not go!” He may also feel that you don’t understand him, and his reason(s) for not wanting to go. He could resent you for placing him in, what he believes (subjectively), to be a horrid set of conditions.
Yes, of course some kids go to camp unwillingly but warm up to the experience after a few days. You know your child’s temperament best. How strong is their protest? How much of their concerns have you come to understand and tried to address? Did you work through potential issues with a strategy? Have you jointly created a back-up plan? For parents of first time campers, you can read my article on how to prepare your child for camp here.
When he proclaims that “he is never going to be as tough as you”, it suggests to me that he feels badly about his lack of courage and is expressing that this camp situation is more overwhelming than he can manage at the moment.
As parents, we need to help our children grow their courage and that means finding the sweet spot whereby we are not rescuing them or allowing them to evade life’s challenges but neither are we totally overwhelming them with demands. We want them to face their fears and succeed in overcoming them, one baby step at a time.
Given the intensity and regularity of your son’s emotional reaction, I am guessing this is a step too big for him this summer. It may be very calming for him to hear that you have his back and won’t push him, but that you know he can manage camp if he wants to try it out again, even for a few days, but you’ll honour that if he would rather miss all the fun things about camp, then you will oblige his wishes.
Next, keep working on opportunities to flex his homesickness muscles (especially at night) until they become stronger. Regular overnight sleepovers with friends and family might be more doable this summer. You can also improve his courage by giving him further responsibility at home. Courage grows when a child feels independent and competent in all areas of their life. Dependent children are needy and demanding. They do not function well without their parent foot maids at hand. Could he begin to take of care of his morning routine independently. Can he do his homework without reminders?
If your circumstances allow for no other options but sleepover camp, that is a different conversation, but if your schedules allow for him to do day camps/activities and still come home at night where he feels most comfortable, I think that is the route I would recommend.