Q: A few months ago, my daughter brought home a little magazine from her Girl Scout troop with options for week-long summer camps. She begged for me to sign her up for one, and she is scheduled to be at sleep-away horse camp for one week this summer. I paid almost $500 that is nonrefundable.
And now my daughter is telling me she doesn't want to go. She said she doesn't feel ready to spend so many nights in a row away from home, and she's scared she won't like anyone at camp and won't make any friends. I know that if I send her, she'll be fine 10 minutes after I drop her off. But I also don't want to force her to go. Do you think there's value in sending her anyway, to teach her that we stick to our commitments and show her that she really is going to be OK at camp?
A: I have a strong bias toward all things sleep-away camp and am hard-pressed to imagine children who shouldn't go. There are camps for grieving children, for children with life-threatening diseases, religious camps, sports camps, art camps, horse camps, tech and STEM camps, and sailing camps. There are camps for boys and camps for girls and camps for children who identify as neither or both. There are camps in cities and mountains and beaches and woods. I support them all.
There is something magical about sleep-away camp. Kids leave their family to stay with hopeful young people (the counselors), become uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings, try new things and develop courage.
I am not suggesting sleepover camp is always a bed of roses. There are bad counselors and bullying, bug bites and illness, rain and rashes aplenty. There is homesickness, bad food and boring activities. But the good significantly outweighs the bad.
The main problem here is that I don't know how old your daughter is. She could be a Daisy in first grade or a Junior Girl Scout in fourth grade, and those are two very different developmental ages that carry different implications for leaving home. For instance, if your child is 6, leaving home for the first time could be filled with much more anxiety than it would be for a 9-year-old. That's because the average 6-year-old is on the brink of being a "big kid," but easily slips into immaturity if they are hungry, sick or tired. This doesn't mean anything is wrong with the child. Six-year-old children are intense. But a 10-year-old is (mostly) able to stay more patient, calm, cooperative, and, most importantly, talk to themselves when they get panicked. So, both a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old will get panicked when leaving home for the first time, but the 10-year-old will be able to better cope with these big feelings.
No matter the age, it is a natural human tendency to get excited, sign up for an event and then later get nervous. When the threat of leaving our families and friends is not imminent, it is easy to make the decision to go. But when the actual leaving needs to happen, we panic. The younger and more immature the human, the more you see this happen. The 2-year-old wants to toddle off on his own only to turn around and run back. The 5-year-old can be bossy and independent all day but can easily become a scared and needy young child when the light turns off at night. The 10-year-old is mature and ready to take on new challenges, only to backtrack when the time comes to actually change.
So, unless your child is in an absolute meltdown and your intuition is telling you that camp won't be worth the panic, send her. Trust that the camp will support her, and if she cannot move forward, you can go get her. This is not about the down payment (although it is quite a sum of money) or sticking to your word. This is about your daughter braving her fears, having the time of her life and becoming braver while doing it. Even if she doesn't love camp, the fact that she took it on will indelibly change her.
Only you know if she is ready for sleep-away camp; trust your gut and have faith in your child. Good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.