It seemed like such a good idea at the time. In February, your neighbour had phoned and urged you to register your child for a summer camp.

"This early?" you asked.

"They fill up fast," she warned.

With the world outside still locked in the grip of winter, both you and your child were captivated by online images of laughing campers plunging down waterslides, kayaking across mirror-calm lakes, and roasting marshmallows around a roaring campfire. You signed up your child for their first summer camp without a second thought.

But now, with the first day of camp drawing near, your child is growing increasingly nervous. He asks what camp will be like, and you realize you haven’t got a clue. Soon, you are worried, too. His appetite has disappeared – most likely due to nerves. You start wondering, "Is sending him to camp a good idea after all?"

According to Calvin Bennett, director of Ontario Pioneer Camp, the answer to that question is: absolutely. In fact, he emphasizes, sending your son or daughter to a Christ-focused summer camp is one of the most important things you can do for the spiritual development of your child.

"The camp experience makes the Christian faith attractive to young people," says Bennett. "Even for kids who have grown up in a great Christian home, the highly relational, fun environment of camp is often where their faith becomes real to them and they begin to own it for themselves."

That personal embrace of Christ, through camp, can make a lifetime of difference. When Ontario Pioneer Camp contacted adults who had been campers and had later served as volunteer staff at some time during the camp’s 30-year history, 74 per cent were still actively involved in their church as adults and 92 per cent still considered themselves followers of Jesus.

A week or more at camp offers kids other important benefits, too. Socialization skills and self-confidence blossom in the camp setting. Ironically, many parents recognize that camp is an ideal environment for kids to build a healthy sense of independence, but also worry that a child who lacks confidence will find their first camp experience too traumatic. Bedwetting issues, picky eating habits, and fear of social isolation at camp can also fuel anxiety in both parent and child.

Fortunately, you can do a great deal to alleviate your child’s apprehension, and your own. And there are a number of ways that you can be involved before, during and after camp to ensure your child gains maximum benefit from their adventure.

Before camp

Craig Douglas, director of Timberline Ranch camp and retreat centre in Maple Ridge, BC, stresses the importance of taking time to research and decide on the right camp.

"I would encourage parents to really do their homework," he says. "Some of the things you should be looking into are staff selection and screening, health and safety policies, medical expertise on site, and whether the camp is accredited through a provincial camping association."1

For a list of key questions to ask in evaluating a camp, visit Canada’s Christian Camping International website at Ccicanada.org. If you have concerns about specific issues such as bedwetting, separation anxiety or medical conditions, ask how staff are trained to deal with these situations. Don’t settle for an unsatisfactory response; try another camp.

A good camp will also be interested in encouraging solid spiritual development in your child over a period of several years. When you consider the camp’s location, can you commit to travelling there regularly?

"You’ll get something out of a week at camp, for sure," says Bennett. "But our great stories of success are our staff members who have come from our camp. It’s those folks we are tracking 25 years later who are still connected with their faith."

Take advantage of open houses and tours to check out a camp and have your questions answered. Bring your child along, too; the opportunity to familiarize them with the facility will help ease any anxiety. This summer would be an opportune time to decide on a camp for next year.

Once you’ve selected a camp, begin preparing your child for their first week-long stay. If you have the option, let your child try a day camp first. Day camps offer a gentle introduction to camp life and whet kids’ appetite for an overnight camp the following year.

Before your child arrives for an overnight camp, make sure they’ve had at least one sleepover at a friend’s house. Perhaps coordinate the sleepover as a reward for learning self-care routines that will help at camp, such as getting ready for bed unassisted and on time.

Always convey a sense of excitement about camp. Prepare your child positively for unfamiliar situations. For example, you might say, "It will be very dark at night, but you’ll be amazed at how many stars you can see."

Don’t mention homesickness, but do pack a favourite stuffed toy or other memento to provide a sense of connection with home. Never say to your child, "If you have problems at camp, call me and I’ll come pick you up." This well-meaning but misguided reassurance focuses your child’s attention on an exit strategy, rather than overcoming challenges.

Consider allowing your child to invite a friend along to camp if he or she is shy. Most children, however, cope well on their own. In the highly relational environment of camp, kids have made many new friends by the end of day two.

During camp

If you have a chance to meet your child’s leader, quickly summarize essential medical or personal information you provided on the registration form, or simply urge them to review the form. Be upfront about any recent illness, and don’t forget to mention sleepwalking or a recent bereavement.

Understand and respect the camp’s need to limit your child’s contact with you. Don’t plan to visit your child during the week, or show up unannounced.

"For the child who has struggled hard and beaten the homesick bug, to see their parent again in the middle of the week is disastrous," says Douglas. "It just sets them right back to the start of the homesickness cycle."

Pray for your child during the week, as well as for the leaders and the other children at camp. Ask that it will be a significant, life-enhancing experience.

After camp

Due to privacy issues, many camps are not able to follow up on kids as closely as they would like. This is a crucial time for you, the parent, to be ready to help ensure that your child’s camp experience has lasting impact.

Seize this strategic opportunity to help build up your child spiritually. Ask your son or daughter if they received a Bible or devotional materials. Younger children may welcome your suggestion to begin having family devotions together – especially if you use the materials they brought home from camp. Encourage teens in their efforts to spend consistent, daily time in the Word. Your own example and willingness to discuss what you are learning can be a big motivator.

Even with regular time reading the Bible, life back home may seem "flat" to your child, compared to the vitality of the camp community. You can help by enabling your child to maintain contact with friends from camp. Don’t be discouraged if your teen suddenly decides to leave your home church for a new youth group where they can reconnect with other campers. This is not the time to dampen their enthusiasm. Instead, support your teen in their search for a faith-building environment that is most meaningful to them.

Sometimes, camp leaders establish follow-up Bible study groups. Contact the camp to ask if there is one in your region. You should also ask your child if their camp leader is continuing to contact them by email or through a social networking site. Don’t forget to send a note of appreciation and encouragement to that young leader yourself!

If your child made a friend at camp who is from an unchurched family, invite that new buddy for regular play dates and eventually a Saturday night sleepover followed by a visit to Sunday school the next morning. Your family may be the only Christians who have ongoing contact with that child.

It may take several weeks, or even months, for your child to share all their memorable moments from camp. But once you appreciate the impact the experience has had on your child, you’ll be eager to sign them up for their next camp. And your child, most likely, will be counting down the days!


1 To find the camping association for your region, visit Ccamping.org.

Website references do not constitute blanket endorsement or complete agreement by Focus on the Family Canada.


© 2009 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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